The value of the journalistic identity on the World Wide Web
Southwest Texas State University
Running footer: The value of the journalistic identity
Paper presented to the Mass Communication & Society Division of
the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication
August, 1998 conference
Department of Mass Communication
Southwest Texas State University
601 University Drive
San Marcos, TX 78666
phone: (512) 245-1948
fax: (512) 246-7649
e-mail: [log in to unmask] (note that 0 is a zero)
Acknowledgment: The author thanks Pulitzer Technologies of the St. Louis
Post-Dispatch and the Media Research Club of Chicago for providing financial
support that made this study possible.
The value of the journalistic identity
The value of the journalistic identity
The value of the journalistic identity on the World Wide Web
An experiment found that content providers on the Web associated with
journalism, e.g., an online newspaper or a television network online, were
perceived as most credible, compared to a content provider that had nothing to
do with journalism but was delivering news and an unidentified content provider.
In content providers that had a journalistic identity, stories and ads were
perceived as most credible. Stories were liked the most and likelihood of
subscribing was the highest in the newspaper as perceived source.
The growth of the Internet and its graphics-based component, the World Wide
Web, epitomizes the concept of technological convergence -- the integration of
systems that store, process and retrieve text, sound, image, and animation.
With the joining of computer technology, communication networks, and content
production, traditional journalistic media have faced the challenge to survive
and fit within the new media consumption environment. They have had to add to
their traditional product a range of new, interactive functions and services, a
process that has also involved questioning, scrutinizing, modifying and
redefining their identity.
Ghosh ("Opening the gate," 1997, p. 157) includes in his predictions about
business on the Web "an identity crisis" for all information companies. First,
newspapers and magazines with established "brands" have, some may argue,
obscured their identity by placing themselves within larger Internet services,
such as America Online, CompuServe, Infi.Net, or the "push" online product
PointCast, which is delivered on computer screen savers. These services can be
compared to crowded newsstands where it is difficult for individual brands to
stand out. The Web gives unprecedented opportunities for identity blurring. In
the new medium, radio and television stations have ventured into the territory
of print media, providing "an interesting and useful reading experience"
(Levins, 1997, p. 27). In turn, newspapers online offer video footage and
audio on their Web sites. But the stepping over boundaries is not only across
media categories. The Boston Globe, for example, made a calculated decision to
submerge its identity into the electronic communication conglomerate boston.com
of over 30 media and non-media partners serving Boston in general.
Second, in addition to offering their specialized product--news--newspapers
have become providers of Internet access and service, a territory that used to
be reserved for computer and telephone companies. Readers are inundated with
ads from their local newspapers, identifying themselves as ISPs (Internet
Third, traditional newspapers and magazines placed on the Web have taken
advantage of the technology's interactivity, offering services unrelated to
journalism, for example, bank transactions and travel reservations. Such
services raise logical questions about the identity and brand of the news media
both within them as institutions and among audiences. Referring to Time
Warner's Money magazine, whose online edition offers bank transactions, Ghosh
("Opening the gate," 1997, p. 157) asks:
Where does Time Warner end and where does the bank start? Where does
Time Warner end and where does the retailer start?... Where does Time
end and where does America Online start?
On the other hand, telephone and computer software companies have begun to
offer news, in turn invading the journalistic media's area of specialty and the
boundaries that guarded their identity. Advertisers have ventured in the online
environment on their own, both in their corporate home pages and in partnerships
with search engines and personal home pages, expanding their presence far beyond
online versions of journalistic media. Some advertisers even offer their own
news services on the Web, the content of which has nothing to do with their
products. Bulletin boards, chat rooms and other interactive forums on the
Internet distribute a variety of information that users consume. Computer
software, such as autonomous intelligent agents, allows the vision of "The Daily
Me," a personalized information "boutique" containing news and ads matched with
each individual consumer's interests and idiosyncratic message preferences.
Computer software exists that can write journalistic stories on its own. In
these cases, not only is the traditional boundary of journalism blurred, its
role of gatekeeping is entirely bypassed. The Internet and the Web have become
an enormous carrier of information whose source in many instances may remain
unidentified and unknown.
Blurring the boundaries of specialization for content providers, communication
network providers and advertisers is not a unique Web phenomenon. In the early
stages of radio, advertisers did not just sponsor programs directly promoting
their products, they produced shows and controlled the programming. In the late
1980s, when telephone companies argued for a right to deliver information
without government restrictions, the newspaper industry immediately saw the
potential risk of losing advertising revenue and felt a need to reinforce its
constitutionally protected identity and role in society. About the same time,
computer companies, such as IBM, ventured into the electronic publishing and
distribution fields, stepping into the territories of both newspaper and
telephone companies. The problem of blurring the boundaries of editorial
content and advertising is not new at all. But with the penetration of the Web
and its vast capacity to host and bring information from anybody to anybody,
source credibility and the role of news media has taken on a greater importance
than ever before; it has become an issue that may help shape the future of
How do media consumers react to the potentially confusing redrawing and
blurring of specialists' territories? First, are newsreaders and viewers
sensitive to the credibility of Web sources? And second, if they are, do
audiences discriminate among sources, placing more credibility on those
traditionally associated with journalism? Do the old identities and
specializations they are familiar with influence audience members' processing of
information from the World Wide Web? Is there such a concept as a "brand name"
of journalism? If so, what is the equity associated with it? Do consumers
evaluate online information as critically as they are generally expected to?
Meeks (quoted in "Emerging journalism," 1997, p. 278) argues: "People aren't
stupid. People playing journalist on the Net and spouting off unconfirmed facts
will be branded as such." Jeffrey (quoted in "Customer relations," 1997, p.
407) suggests: "I think it's the enormity of the information [on the Internet]
that makes brands even more important in some respects." "We believe customers
are not going to behave differently on the Web than they do with any other
traditional channel of communication and distribution," adds Biro ("The new
economics," 1997, p. 416). But there is no evidence so far to support such
assumptions. This study sought to investigate these questions empirically.
The study's main objective was to determine whether and how the perceived
credibility of a content provider of an online news service and especially its
identity affect audience cognitive, attitudinal, and behavioral responses to the
news service as a whole and to its content. The specific responses studied here
were readers/viewers' perceptions of the credibility of the news stories and ads
placed in an online news service and brands promoted in it; attitudes toward the
news stories, ads and brands; memory for them; purchase intentions for the
advertised products and brands; and self-reported likelihood of subscribing to
The study looked at the impact of various online environments on
consumers/readers' perceptions of credibility. The term "online environments"
refers to what kind of media source people think they are using: newspaper, the
Internet/the World Wide Web, television, or some new kind of combination. The
study manipulated which environment people thought they were in. The
manipulation allowed an opportunity to compare the perception of the
journalistic environment to the perceptions of other, non-journalistic or
Theoretical framework and concept explication
The overarching theory that informs this research is schema or knowledge
structure theory from cognitive and social psychology. The construct of
knowledge structures can be traced back to Plato. In trying to answer the
question of how people gain knowledge, the ancient Greek philosopher postulated
that knowledge builds upon forms. Forms, in Plato's theory, were the general
ideas summarizing the main characteristics of every category of things that
people think about. Thus, by dividing the world into classes of objects, people
could understand it and know it (DeFleur & Ball-Rokeach, 1989).
Thousands of years later, scholars continue to ask the same epistemological
question of how we know what we know. Social psychology has investigated
expectancy effects, the influence of prior knowledge and beliefs for many years,
as early as Gestalt psychology. In contemporary models of social information
processing there are many types of knowledge structures that are similar to
Plato's forms: Schemas, scripts, frames, causal or hierarchical knowledge
structures, categories, exemplars, and prototypes are all structures for
organizing personal and social knowledge and experience (e.g., Cohen, 1981;
Ellis & Reed, 1993; Goffman, 1974; Minsky, 1975; Schank & Abelson, 1977; Smith,
1989). They contain information about the relationships among the attributes of
social objects, governing perception, memory, judgments and inferences. In
general, the theories that involve these terms are collectively called schema
theories (Alba & Hasher, 1983). In this study, the terms "schema" and
"knowledge structure" are used interchangeably but the more general "knowledge
structure" is preferred.
The creator of the term schema, British psychologist F. Bartlett, defined it in
1934 as "an active organization of past reactions or past experiences" (Best,
1989, p. 211). More recently, a schema has been described as a representation
of "categorical knowledge according to a slot structure" where the slot
summarizes the attributes of a category (J. Anderson, 1995, p. 155). Thus, a
schema is like a template, a blank that is gradually filled with information.
When laypeople encounter a new stimulus configuration, such as, for instance, a
newspaper delivered on computer screen, they look for an existing memory
template that fits the new stimulus.
Norman (1988, pp. 115-116) summarizes the components of schema theory as
follows: "(1) that there is logic and order to the individual [knowledge]
structures...; (2) that human memory is associative, with each schema pointing
and referring to multiple others to which it is related or that help define the
components ...; and (3) that much of our power for deductive thought comes from
using the information in one schema to deduce the properties of another." Such
deductive thought power can be illustrated in the concept of a default value, an
inference in which a general knowledge structure fills in the blanks for
unobserved instances (e.g., Crocket, 1988; Norman, 1988). The default value is
so powerful that people often do not know if a conclusion they made is based on
actual observed evidence or default inferences. But when people encounter
instances that are exceptions to the knowledge structure rules, they
simultaneously revise the knowledge structures and relocate the instances to
other knowledge structures; thus one's knowledge structures are constantly
Studies on audience processing of media have widely used schema theories,
mainly to show how audiences rely on knowledge structures to make inferences
from news stories and thus make sense of them (e.g., Becker, 1987; Edelman,
1993; Entman, 1989, 1993; Fredin & Tabaczynski, 1994; Fredin, Monnett & Kosicki,
1994; Garramone, Steele, & Pinkerton, 1991; Geiger & Newhagen, 1993; Graber,
1988, 1989; Grimes, 1990; Neuman, Just, & Crigler, 1992; Pan & Kosicki, 1993;
Swanson & Neuman, 1994; Woodall 1986). In this study, knowledge structure
theory was used to explain how people process information from a novel medium in
general, and specifically from a news service provided by a journalistic source,
by a source with a specialization irrelevant to journalism or online information
delivery, and by an unidentified source. It was expected that people's
preexisting knowledge structures about news media, computers, and other relevant
stimuli from their environment would affect the perception of each news
service's credibility. Knowledge structure theory is particularly applicable to
the study of novel media and their perceived credibility because both concepts,
novelty and credibility, can be explicated in terms of knowledge structures.
Media novelty explicated in terms of knowledge structures
The concept of media technology novelty represents an interaction of audience
cognitions and attributes of the media. On the one hand, novelty is an
attribute of the medium--the medium has specific objective features that have
not existed before. On the other hand, novelty of a medium is a perception
(Becker & Schoenbach, 1989). What is new to one person may be old to another,
depending on their individual experiences. Brockman (1996, p. xxiii-xxiv) has
argued that "new technologies = new perceptions." The role of perception is
illustrated in Becker and Schoenbach's (1989, p. 5) example of cable television:
it was a new medium to the industry, but to the audience it was merely "more
'plain old television.'"
Because of such differences in perception, Becker and Schoenbach make a
distinction between two types of new media --"new storage media," which
replicate the functions of older media, only with less noise, and "veritable new
media," which are new because they address new senses or new combinations of
senses. How would the online news service fall into these definitions?
Clearly, it is a new medium to the print newspaper and the television news
industries. But does it address new senses or combinations of them to be seen
as a different medium by the audience? It is reasonable to expect that it does.
The combination of distinct features of an online news service, such as
interactivity, unlimited news hole, unconstrained access (as opposed to the
morning delivery of a paper or the set times for newscasts in television and
radio), and regular updates should make the online news service a new medium
from the audience's perspective.
In general, a novel stimulus is defined as one that laypeople have not
encountered before and in order to make sense of it, they have to somehow
incorporate it in their mental web of prior experience or knowledge. In the
spirit of McLuhan (19964), Rice & Williams (1984, p. 56) argue that "new media,
like previous media, are basically extensions of human senses and effectors."
They even refer to hearing, seeing and speaking as traditional media. This
definition represents a matching of a new stimulus with an already existing
knowledge structure. Minsky (1975) explains the matching of a novel stimulus
with an existing knowledge structure as a request to memory. In his argument,
the memory system is driven by two complementary needs. One is the need of
novel stimuli to be categorized by being incorporated into larger knowledge
structures. The other is the need of underdeveloped knowledge structures to be
completed or reassigned. These needs are coordinated by the specific goals
activated at the time of a new stimulus encounter.
If this is true, the case of processing information from an online news
service, for example a digital newspaper, brings the question of which knowledge
structure the new stimulus is placed under. That is, which part of the stimulus
"digital newspaper" do people use to categorize it and eventually develop a
knowledge structure for it, digital or newspaper. If people think of a digital
newspaper as digital newspaper and place the new medium under their knowledge
structure for a computer, then a digital newspaper is seen as closer to a
computer and somewhat different from a newspaper. In contrast, if people think
of a digital newspaper as a digital newspaper and place the new stimulus under
their knowledge structure for a newspaper, then a digital newspaper is likely to
be perceived as more similar to a print newspaper and different from a computer.
This is an important distinction because it is likely to influence perceptions
of the medium as a whole and of its content.
Media credibility explicated in terms of knowledge structures
"One man's credibility is not another man's," said Don Hewitt, executive
producer of 60 Minutes (quoted in Fry, 1985, p. 93). Media credibility can
also be conceptualized as an interaction between audience cognitions and
attributes of the media. By definition, the concept of credibility is grounded
in already established expectations and set images of what is believable,
trustworthy, or reliable. The root of the word "credibility" is the Latin
credibilis or "worthy of belief" (Barber quoted in Fry, 1985, p. 93; Webster's
new universal unabridged dictionary, 1983, p. 428). Dimensions or operational
definitions of media credibility include accuracy, believability,
trustworthiness, reliability, honesty, expertise, safety, qualification,
dynamism, knowledgeability, fairness, completeness, lack of bias, objectivity,
responsibility, role in criticism of government, independence of special
interests, and acceptability of message sources (e.g., Gaziano, 1988; Gaziano &
McGrath, 1986; McCombs & Washington, 1983; Self, 1996). Similarly, dimensions
of advertiser credibility include attractiveness or likability, trustworthiness,
prestige, competency, perceived competitiveness or success (VandenBergh, Soley,
& Reid, 1981). In addition, perceptions of the media as having an institutional
or political bias, too much negativism, not telling certain stories, unequal
coverage, and unethical behavior of the journalists may be sources of diminished
credibility (Gaziano, 1988; McCombs & Washington, 1983; Weaver et al., 1979).
Obviously, most of these criteria for evaluating credibility depend on
readers'/viewers' personal attributes and, therefore, on their individual
preexisting knowledge structures. Gunther (1992), for example, has examined how
audience members' personal involvement in social groups influences their
perceptions of media credibility. Attractiveness or likability is an
individual-specific criterion reflecting personal tastes. People's individual
media use patterns determine their differential assessments of media credibility
(e.g., Rimmer & Weaver, 1987).
Attributes of the media or the content do, of course, influence perceptions of
credibility, too. There are different credibility perceptions for different
media, for example, TV vs. newspaper (e.g., Carter & Greenberg, 1965; Newhagen
& Nass, 1989). Perceptions of credibility differ for various topics, such as
local vs. international news (Abel & Wirth, 1977; Reagan & Zenaty, 1979).
These attributes form the basis for evaluation. But the evaluation itself
depends on the audience's knowledge structures for what a medium should be and
what makes it credible.
This conceptualization of credibility is important to the study of the
perceived credibility of a new medium, such as computer-mediated news
environment, at this time. Depending on how the actual and the perceived
identity of that environment match, which traditional medium it is seen as close
to and what evaluative dimensions people use to compare the new media
environment with a traditional one, perceptions of credibility--of the medium as
whole and of its content--may vary.
Knowledge structures and differential processing of identical content
There are several reasons for expecting differential processing of the same
content, depending on the perceptions of the medium. First, research on social
cognition has shown knowledge structure-driven differential processing of the
same content. Studies on the priming of certain knowledge structures suggest
they direct readers' elaboration. In the process of reading, people add
plausible information consistent with their preexisting knowledge structure
applied to the presented material, which leads to different inferences made from
the same text by different readers (Bower & Cirilo, 1985). In essence, the
activated knowledge structure supplies information to fill in the blanks which
will otherwise be left unfilled (Novick, Fratianne, & Cheng, 1992).
In a media effects context, Reeves, Chaffee, and Tims (1982) have predicted
that the knowledge structure activated prior to information exposure would
determine how the content would be interpreted and stored. Specifically, they
have suggested that, if, for example, a broadcast of a political debate is aired
as an entertainment program, viewers would interpret the content within an
entertainment schema and would not store any amount of information that the
broadcast contained but that was not consistent with their entertainment schema,
in this case, political information.
Differential processing of almost identical messages has been documented in
communication research in studies on consumer beliefs about advertising.
Preston and Scharbach (1971) demonstrated that almost identical verbal content
was perceived differently, depending on whether it was presented to participants
in an experiment as an ad, a personal letter, an office memo, or a news story.
One of the most interesting results was that logically invalid statements were
more likely to be perceived as accurate if they were seen in an ad rather than
in a news story. The explanation was that people looked at advertising
differently from news, tolerating and expecting illogical statements from
advertising, especially when they served the persuasive purposes of the
In a similar line of research, Owen and Karrh (1994) tested the perceived
credibility of the same message presented as either a video news release or an
ad. Viewers perceived as more credible the video news release, due to the
greater credibility they placed in news programming as opposed to advertising.
While Preston and Scharbach and Owen and Karrh tested effects of the label of
messages, other research has tested effects of the label of a medium. Winick
(1962) found that identical ads were rated as more believable and liked better
if only the manipulation identified them as coming from one magazine versus
another. For television channels specifically, Leshner (1994) has shown that
schemas about specialists and generalists that people usually have for members
of the professions also apply to and influence the processing of media.
Participants in an experiment invariably perceived as more newsworthy stories
that were presented on a "specialist" channel airing only news. Those stories
were also remembered better and liked more than the identical stories shown on a
"generalist" channel airing both news and entertainment. In the same pattern,
entertainment segments seen on a "specialist," entertainment-only channel were
perceived to be more representative of entertainment, were remembered better and
liked more than the identical entertainment segments shown on the "generalist"
channel. These findings were replicated in another study (Nass, Reeves, &
Leshner, 1996), which specifically compared responses to a generalist TV (one
set airing both news and entertainment) and specialist TVs (two sets, one airing
news only, the other airing entertainment only).
Finally, within the online context, Sundar and Nass (1996) investigated effects
of the communication source on perceptions of identical content. When the
source of stories was labeled "other [online news] users," participants in an
experiment were significantly more likely to perceive the stories as newsworthy,
to like them, and rate their quality higher than participants in a condition in
which they were told they had selected the content themselves. In addition, if
the perceived source of information was the computer, participants also ranked
the quality of stories higher than in the condition in which they were told they
had selected the content. Interestingly, although that study included a
condition of news editors as source, its effects were not in a direction of
leading to greater perceived credibility, quality, newsworthiness, or liking.
But the study did not appear to control for any variables that could intervene
in the perceptions of communication source and its effects.
What these studies suggest is that the label or identity (of a message, medium,
and source) matters in directing people's processing of media information. The
identity effect is not only consistent across messages, media, and sources, it
holds across symbol systems (e.g., print in the Preston and Scharbach study;
video in Leshner's research and in the Owen and Karrh study) and across
technology (the Sundar study). Such differential processing of identical
content can be reasonably expected then as a result of the identity of different
content providers on the Web. Depending on which knowledge structure that
identity activates, a newspaper one, a computer one, or something else, people
may perceive the content differently.
The next section examines the concept of the journalistic identity.
The journalistic identity
In the United States, it can be argued, the institution of journalism has a
special image. The institution of journalism fulfills a variety of normative
roles, without which the realization of a democratic society may be impossible.
First, journalism is expected to perform the role of a reliable messenger,
providing accurate, timely and complete information. An important part of this
role is the reputation of a neutral observer, of an objective informer who in no
case takes sides and strives for utmost veracity in presenting events and issues
to the public. Although motivations for the objectivity norm of the news media
have been questioned (e.g., Ognianova & Endersby, 1996), no other institution in
society seems to be able to fulfill the role of an unbiased witness of daily
Second, the libertarian normative theory of the press (e.g., Rivers, 1970;
Rivers, Miller, & Gandy, 1975; Schramm, 1957; Siebert, Peterson, & Schramm,
1956) outlines the role of journalism as an adversary to authority, a means for
monitoring and challenging the actions of the politically and economically
powerful, and representing and protecting the public's interest. The watchdog
metaphor and the popular phrase "to comfort the afflicted and afflict the
comfortable" succinctly summarize this role of journalism. This role has been
the one perhaps most strongly embraced by journalists themselves since the 1970s
(e.g., Johnstone, Slawski, & Bowman, 1972-73; Weaver & Wilhoit, 1991, 1992).
For example the main principles outlined to guide journalists in their work
include: "Be honest, fair, and courageous in gathering, reporting, and
interpreting accurate information;" "Give voice to the voiceless;" "Hold the
powerful accountable" (Black, Steele, & Barney, 1993). Research has shown such
principles are shared by the audience in judging the quality of a news medium
Third, the literature on roles of the media identifies a role for journalism as
an educator--in the United States, too, not only in developmental press systems.
The newspaper in education program popular in newspapers across the United
States is one example of using journalism as a "teaching tool" (American
Newspaper Publishers Association Foundation, 1990). A form of journalism's
educational role is the vision of it as a catalyst in strengthening civic
culture (e.g., Lambeth, 1992; Neuman, Just & Crigler, 1992). The recent civic
or public journalism movement, intended to make people more interested and
involved in civic affairs and democratic participation is another example of
education via journalistic media. The civic journalism movement can also be
seen as an example of journalism's role to facilitate and stimulate political
socialization, a process extensively researched in mass communication (e.g.,
Kim, 1988; Lee, 1984; Roberts, Hawkins, & Pingree, 1975). There are other
separate lines of research investigating the educational role of journalism in
certain areas of life and society. The health communication literature, for
example, focuses on the role of news media as disseminators of health and
environmental messages (e.g., Brenner & Quesada, 1977; Reardon & Richardson,
1991; Romer & Kim, 1995; Wechsler, DeJong, Shapiro, & Lavin, 1992). The
literature on the diffusion of innovations (e.g., Rogers & Shoemaker, 1971)
investigates, among other issues, how news media contribute to the dissemination
of new concepts in society. Related to the educational normative role of
journalism is the role of journalism as an agenda setter, bringing certain
issues to the forefront of the public sphere (e.g., Goldstein, 1985; Nelson,
In addition, despite the academic debate about the exact status of journalism,
whether it is a business, a profession, or a craft (e.g., Goodwin, 1983),
journalists are also known as professional storytellers (e.g., Fry, 1985;
Maynard, 1988). Newspapers with strong traditions of unique, vivid storytelling
are seen as individual personalities who have become part of people's daily
lives (Brown, 1991).
Finally, journalism fulfills the role of an information filter and interpreter.
Among their other responsibilities, journalists are expected to be professional
information gatekeepers, capable of choosing the type of and order in which
information flows to the public. As part of that role, journalism provides the
explanation and context that are much needed for making sense of the news (e.g.,
Kim, 1989; Neuman, Just & Crigler, 1992; Wilhoit & Drew, 1991).
In this study, all these assigned roles of journalism are integrated in the
term of "journalistic identity." The validity of such a concept is illustrated,
to some extent, by the special constitutional protections journalism in the
United States enjoys (e.g., McQuail, 1992; Schramm & Porter, 1982) and by the
public's perceptions of journalism. Although we often hear about declining
credibility of news media in general, confidence in journalism as an institution
has been considerably higher than confidence in other societal institutions,
e.g., businesses or government. Since the 1970s, the American public has ranked
journalists fairly high in terms of their commitment to ethical standards and
serving the public good (McCombs & Washington, 1983; Times Mirror Center for the
People & the Press, 1995).
Especially relevant to this study is a 1978 survey of 1,347 adults that
compared their perceptions of newspapers to perceptions of other industries,
such as telephone companies, banks, airlines, health care and insurance
companies, oil, liquor, and steel industries (cited in McCombs & Washington,
1983). Newspapers were rated from two to fourteen points higher than these
companies. If this perception transfers to the online context, the site of an
established media company on the Web should be perceived more favorably than the
sites of other companies, including telephone companies, especially when it
comes to evaluating news content.
Based on the above review, it can be argued that, from a consumer behavior
perspective, the journalistic identity is in fact an established brand image.
"What Turner Broadcasting really has is customers, and what it has that's
marketable to a group of customers is brand identity," says Doug Carlston,
chairman and CEO of Brodbund software (quoted in Brockman 1996, p. 44). "Those
who will dominate the news in the twenty-first century will be those who
overcome clickermania. They will do it by creating brands of news that fill the
needs of particular viewers," predicts the writer Teller about the cable
industry (quoted in The Radio and Television News Directors Foundation, 1995).
Fidler (1997) points out newspapers have established brand name identities that
are recognized instantly. The equity that comes with these names is that of
professional information gatherers, processors, validators, and organizers,
using criteria, such as the public interest, right and need to know.
But would the equity associated with the journalistic identity transfer to the
context of Web media and, if so, how?
The value of the journalistic identity online
There are intuitive suggestions that the journalistic identity would preserve
and perhaps increase its value in the Web environment. First, the role of an
independent and unbiased voice, presenting verified, accurate information is
especially important in the online environment, with its persisting lack of
credibility. "You don't trust everything you read on the Net. Journalism
brings its standards and some sense of credibility. There is a big difference
between raw information and people who check out the facts," says Denise Caruso,
director of Digital Commerce for the New York Times (quoted in "Emerging
journalism," 1997, p. 278). The reputation of the news media as credible
sources may be at the center of their survival in the Web future. It's an
intangible value that has upheld their existence as an institution through many
years of technological revolutions. Rheingold (quoted in The Radio and
Television News Directors Foundation, 1995) sees credibility as the core of
today's news media:
Present-day news organizations can do away with the buildings; they can
do away with the business structure. If they maintain a Network of
and trustworthy observers whom you can trust today because what they said
yesterday was accurate, then those news organizations are going to stay in
Second, the role of journalism in serving and protecting democracy should
remain vital in the Internet world. Certainly no business company online can
adequately take on the watchdog role of journalism. This is how a journalist
reminded readers of her main professional role, which should extend to the Web
world: "The real reason we are protected by the First Amendment--and the Home
Shopping Network isn't--is that we have to do good. We shine light in dark
places, find out things people don't want us to find" (McKenna, 1993, pp.
Related to that role is the perception that, no matter how much
non-journalistic companies advance in the field of news content supply on the
Web, their credibility would be lower than that of established traditional news
media companies venturing online (Isaacs, 1995; Taylor, 1995; Fitzgerald, 1995).
One of the first reactions to Microsoft's announcement of plans for its own news
service, Microsoft Network, were met with the expectation that, because
Microsoft does not specialize in journalism, its news service would be like "a
discount store with a lot of products at low prices, but of mediocre quality"
(Feola & Brown, 1995, p. 34). Another reason for expected lower credibility of
a news service coming from a company not associated with journalism has to do
with the idealized vision of news media and their foremost commitment to
fulfilling the public's right to know--and the perceived lack of such commitment
in a company whose top priority is business. Concerns about conflict of
interest were raised immediately when Microsoft announced the news service, with
the reasonable question of how it would cover stories about the company itself
In addition, the mission of journalism to serve and protect democracy is
complemented but not entirely substituted by the variety of civic networks
online (e.g., Koch, 1996). Individual contributors to electronic networks face
the same credibility problems that hurt the Internet as a whole, and the growing
opportunities for anyone to publish would further require a reliable
information filter. This suggests a third important role of today's news media
in the future Internet world.
The professional gatekeeping role of journalism becomes more important than
ever in the Web environment. One statement exemplifies the importance of
journalistic sources on the Web: "The good news about the Web is everyone has a
voice. The bad news about the Web is everyone has a voice. Unfiltered voices
is not necessarily what we have time for... There is a role for good
journalists who can make sense of some of those voices" (Caplan quoted in "Press
and the new media," 1997, p. 289). The technology does change some of the
traditional filtering of information by journalists. For example, the Web now
adds to their responsibilities the obligation to also provide credible links to
other sites (Steele, 1997). But the essence of the gatekeeping and filtering
role for journalism remains the same in the Web environment.
Fourth, for advertising needs specifically, the role of journalism as
providing exposure to large audiences (not mentioned above because it is not a
normative role; e.g., Bennett, 1988; Bogart, 1991; Gandy, Jr., 1990; Hoynes,
1994; Shoemaker & Reese, 1996) does not seem to change on the Web at all. One
way for online advertisers to reach large audiences and at the same time be
associated with a credible and useful context is to place their messages in
online news services, especially those with established journalistic names.
While the number of users is important, perhaps even more critical is the
association with a trusted brand, such as a credible news medium. A 1996
Advertising Age survey of 1,000 US adults found that education ranked as the
most popular type of things people expect from interactive media, with 72% of
the respondents citing it. Because one of the missions of a journalistic
product in a democratic society is to inform and educate and because audiences
are used to seeing advertising in journalistic products (even public
broadcasting has its sponsorship drives), online advertising should be resisted
less if it is placed in a journalistic product.
The next section lists the specific hypotheses tested in this study.
Hypotheses and rationale
Perceived credibility of the content provider, stories, and ads hypotheses
As early as Aristotle's time, the vision of a trusted source was named ethos
: it included good sense, goodwill, and good morals or character (McGuire,
1969; Tan, 1981). Machiavelli (cited in Tan, 1981, p. 103) saw as a desirable
source a person who could be considered an authority in a certain area of
knowledge, with an established prestige in it. In modern times, Aristotle's
good sense was translated as competence, knowledge or expertise; and good
morals or character were translated as trustworthiness (Miller, 1987).
Hovland's classic studies on persuasion (Hovland & Weiss, 1951; Hovland,
Janis, & Kelly, 1953) showed a credible source was one with both expertise in
a particular field and trustworthiness. Expertise referred to such
characteristics as level of training in a certain area, experience in it, and
professional prestige. Trustworthiness meant the source was seen as having
the motivation to deliver a message without bias, intention to manipulate, or
protection of a special interest (Tan, 1981). These two dimensions of source
credibility have held consistent across studies (summarized in Miller, 1987).
The two dimensions suggest the journalistic identity described above may imply
a unique credibility of journalism to inform the public, which can be
articulated in the following hypothesis for news services online:
H1: An online news content provider with a journalistic identity (e.g., a
newspaper or a TV network), will be perceived as most credible, compared to a
content provider whose identity is unknown and a content provider whose
identity is not associated with journalism.
If audience members do indeed have a concept in their minds of a journalistic
identity, as argued, the literatures on source credibility and context effects
suggest the following set of hypotheses about news and advertising in online
news services and the influence of the content provider's credibility.
H2: Perceptions of the online content provider will significantly influence
the perceived credibility of news stories placed in its service so that:
a) stories in an online news service that is seen as most credible will also
be perceived as most credible.
b) stories in an online news service that is associated with journalism will
be perceived as most credible.
The same hypothesis can be articulated for the ads.
H3: Perceptions of the online content provider will significantly influence
the perceived credibility of ads placed in its service so that:
a) ads in an online news service that is perceived as most credible will also
be perceived as most credible.
b) ads in an online news service that is associated with journalism will be
perceived as most credible.
Research on consumer psychology has shown that people tend to better remember
information they have encountered in a source that is perceived as important
or credible. Perception of the source as credible should lead to greater
attention allocated to the message (e.g., Hovland, Janis, & Kelly, 1953), and
greater involvement on the part of the receiver. This should lead to central
or systematic processing of the message, which in turn should lead to better
memory (e.g., Chaiken, 1980, 1987; Chaiken, Liberman, & Eagly, 1989; Gotlieb &
Sarel, 1991; Petty & Cacioppo, 1979; Petty & Cacioppo, 1984; Petty & Cacioppo,
1984; Petty, Cacioppo, & Schumann, 1983; Petty, Unnava, & Strathman, 1991;
Thorson, 1989). This can be articulated in the following hypotheses about
stories and ads.
H4: Perceptions of an online content provider will significantly influence
memory for the news stories placed in its service so that:
a) stories in an online news service that is perceived as most credible will
be remembered best.
b) stories in an online news service that is associated with journalism will
be remembered best.
H5: Perceptions of an online content provider will significantly influence
the memory for ads placed in its service so that:
a) ads and brands promoted in an online news service that is perceived as
most credible will be remembered best.
b) ads and brands promoted in an online news service that is associated with
journalism will be remembered best.
Related to the above hypotheses, persuasion and source effects research has
shown that a source perceived as credible also (usually) leads to better
attitudes toward messages (e.g., Fishbein & Ajzen, 1981; Kim, 1996; McGuire,
1981). And there is evidence that perceived ad credibility specifically is
among the predictors of attitude toward advertising (MacKenzie & Lutz, 1989).
This evidence suggests the following hypotheses:
H6: Perceptions of an online content provider will significantly influence
attitudes toward the news stories placed in its service so that:
a) stories in an online news service that is perceived as most credible will
be liked the most.
b) stories in an online news service that is associated with journalism will
be liked the most.
H7: Perceptions of an online content provider will significantly influence
attitudes toward the ads placed in its service and the brands promoted in them
a) ads and brands promoted in an online news service that is perceived as
most credible will be liked the most.
b) ads and brands promoted in an online news service that is associated with
journalism will be liked the most.
Behavioral response hypotheses
The persuasion literature is still unclear about the exact influence of
source factors on attitudes and behavior (e.g., Fishbein & Ajzen, 1981; Petty
& Cacioppo, 1981). Learning models of persuasion, linking a stimulus with a
particular response, such as classical conditioning (e.g., Hull, 1943; Shimp,
1991; Spence, 1956) and instrumental conditioning (e.g., Hovland, Janis, &
Kelly, 1953), suggest sources perceived as more trustworthy are more likely to
influence behavior than sources perceived as less trustworthy. It has been
shown specifically that source credibility positively influences purchase
intention of organizational buyers (Wynn, 1982). In addition, if the general
positive internal processes hypothesized above as a function of source
credibility do occur indeed, they can be predicted to lead to favorable
behavior intention (e.g., Reibstein, Lovelock, & Dobson, 1980; Stang,
1977)--based on the general expectation of attitude-behavior consistency
(research summarized in Perloff, 1993), and Fishbein and Ajzen's belief model
of persuasion (1975) that shows attitude leads to behavior. With this
rationale, it is reasonable to posit the following hypotheses, related to the
H8: Perceptions of an online content provider will significantly influence
self-reported likelihood of subscribing to the news service so that:
a) subscription likelihood will be the highest for the service of a provider
that is perceived as most credible.
b) subscription likelihood will be the highest for the service of a provider
that is associated with journalism.
H9: Perceptions of an online content provider will significantly influence
self-reported purchase intention for products, services, and brands advertised
in its service so that:
a) purchase intention will be the highest for products, services, and brands
advertised in an online news service that is seen as most credible.
b) purchase intention will be the highest for products, services, and brands
advertised in an online news service that is associated with journalism.
To test the above hypotheses, an experiment was conducted with a sample of 471
undergraduate students at a Midwestern university and a general sample of 402
Midwestern community residents above the age of 21. A professional survey
research company recruited the general sample randomly and from community
associations. Students received extra credit toward a class from which they
were recruited; participants in the general sample received individual payment
in cash or a donation to their organization.
Four conditions were chosen to manipulate perceptions of the online environment
for participants in the experiment. In the first condition, participants saw
the stories and ads placed in an online newspaper, with a masthead resembling a
print newspaper and a fictitious, but realistic name, The Daily Times. In the
second condition, participants saw the same stories and ads placed in a
fictitious television network's news service on the Web. The name, Central
Television Network, or CTN, was expected to evoke analogies with a traditional
TV network. These two conditions had a clearly defined journalistic identity
but a comparison between responses to them allowed a test of whether people's
perceptions of traditionally used media are transferred to the online context.
In the third condition, participants saw the same content placed in the Web site
of a travel company, the Travel Center. This condition had a clearly defined
identity, but it had nothing to do with journalism, and, at least intuitively,
should not be expected to be credible in delivering news. In the no identity,
or control, condition, participants saw the same stories and ads on the Web, but
without any content provider's identity attached to them. This condition made
it possible to tap into the users' "pure" perceptions (or default inferences) of
the Web as a communication medium, unaffected by a label that implies a certain
The three treatment conditions included an opening screen that reiterated the
identity of the content provider with a logo and a picture designed to evoke the
specific expectations people have about a particular institutional identity.
The same icons, together with the logo of the individual content provider, were
placed in a frame on top of each of the following screens that included the
stories and ads. Participants could see the logo and the icons at all times,
while scrolling down to read the story. This was expected to reinforce the
identity of the content provider throughout the experiment.
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In all conditions, there were six screens, with a story on the right side of the
screen and an ad on the left side. The stories were laid out identically in a
column format. The ads were boxed next to them in a frame. Stories took about
65% of the screens, ads took about 35%. The screen background was white, the
text was black, the pictures in the ads, the icons for the identified content
providers, the opening screens, and separate screens thanking for participation
in the study, were in full color, forming an attractive set of pages.
Professional Web page designers working for an online newspaper designed the
Each condition included the same six stories, two national, two local, and two
travel, together with ads for six products: two ads for shelf or inexpensive
products, e.g., toothbrush, beer; two for medium-level products, e.g., clothing,
telephone service; and two for high ticket or luxury products, e.g., cars,
computers. In addition, the ads varied in type: image and information. An
image ad is usually one heavy in visual elements; any verbal information in it
has very little to do with a description of the product's attributes. An
information ad, in contrast, focuses on describing specific attributes of the
product or service promoted, including in the headline. This allowed
generalizability of results across various stories, products, and advertising
types. The text for the stories and the text and images for the ads were all
collected from actual pages on the Web maintained by news services or
advertisers, thus lending them external validity.
All participants viewed the screens on IBM computers with identical 12"
monitors, using the Netscape 3 Web browser, resolution set to identical
parameters. Each participant was exposed to one content provider only (a
between-subjects design). Participants were randomly assigned to a condition.
Independent and dependent variables
Two independent variables were used to measure the overall concept of
content provider. One was simply the condition to which participants were
exposed: newspaper, TV network, travel agency, or unidentified source. The
other was perceived source, the source to which participants assumed they had
been exposed, which might not necessarily coincide with the condition.
Perceived source was measured with a question immediately after participants
viewed the stimulus material, asking them who produced the stories they just
viewed. The answer options were constructed to correspond to the four
conditions: a newspaper, a TV network, a travel agency, and "Don't know" for the
no identity/control condition.
Perceived source credibility was measured with five 7-point semantic
differential items (e.g., Osgood, Suci, & Tannenbaum, 1971): believable/not
believable, trustworthy/not trustworthy, unreliable/reliable, informative/not
informative (alpha coefficient = .78 for the students, .79 for the general
In the construction of a scale to measure story credibility many different
sources were reviewed and compared (e.g., Andsager, 1990; Bogart, 1984; Gaziano,
1988; Gaziano & McGrath, 1986; Jacobson, 1969; Leshner, 1994; McCombs &
Washington, 1983; Meyer, 1988; Newhagen & Nass, 1989; Rimmer & Weaver, 1987;
Self, 1996; Shaw, 1973; Sundar, 1997; Times Mirror Center, 1995; VandenBergh,
Soley, & Reid, 1981; Wilson & Howard, 1978). The study used a nine 7-point
semantic differential items that, from the examined literature, seemed to be
consistent components of the credibility construct and measure it in a reliable
and valid way. The nine items were: factual/opinionated, unfair/fair,
accurate/inaccurate, untrustworthy/trustworthy, balanced/unbalanced,
biased/unbiased, reliable/unreliable, thorough/not thorough, informative/not
informative. This variable was measured separately for each of the six stories
participants viewed (average alpha coefficient = .89 for the students, .92 for
the general sample).
Perceived ad credibility was measured with a shortened version of Beltramini's
television ad credibility/believability scale (Beltramini, 1982, 1988;
Beltramini & Evans, 1985). The scale had to be modified, however, because the
ads in this study appeared in print (though on a computer screen). Some items
were omitted and an item about perceived veracity of the ad's claims based on
Putrevu and Lord (1994) was added. The scale consisted of four 7-point semantic
differential items: has false claims/has true claims,
trustworthy/untrustworthy, good/bad, and convincing/unconvincing (alpha
coefficients =.89 for the students and .91 for the general sample).
Memory for stories and ads (dependent variables) was measured both with free
recall and recognition tests (Thorson, 1989b). It is now standard in
advertising research to use both measures when necessary (Krugman, 1985, 1986)
because the two kinds of tests may reflect different types of mental processes,
different stages of information processing, and may measure processing of
different types of messages. For example, Krugman (1972; 1986) suggested recall
tests may measure information retention of advertising that requires only close
attention (high involvement), while recognition may measure retention of ads
that call for minimal attention (low involvement) or subliminal effects of
advertising (Thorson, 1990). This logic has become dominant in advertising
research (Singh & Rothschild, 1983). In addition, Lang and Friestad (1993)
found partial support for the hypothesis that recognition taps into amounts of
information encoded, while free recall measures amounts of information
retrieved. Because any of the hypothesized effects should occur both during the
processing and the retrieval of information (e.g., Gardial, Schumann, Petkus,
Jr., & Smith, 1993), both recall and recognition were measured for the stories
and the ads.
The study included many concepts of interest, measured in a variety of ways, so
the length of the questionnaire did not permit the inclusion of a distracter
test. To allow sufficient time and distraction after viewing the stimulus
materials and before querying memory (Thorson, 1989a), all questions about
demographic variables (except for media use), the 15 proximity ratings, and 19
questions measuring attitudes toward the news media appeared first on the
questionnaire. Only after that were participants asked to list the topics of
the six stories they had viewed, though not necessarily in the order they had
seen them. Similarly, participants were asked to list the product, brand, and
claim of the six ads they had seen (based on Gilmore & Secunda, 1993; Norris &
Colman, 1992; Singh, Rothschild, & Churchill, 1988). An example was provided
because the pretest showed participants tended to skip the product, even if they
remembered it, going straight to the brand. After the free recall questions,
recognition questions followed (participants were instructed not to turn the
page in the questionnaire) both about the stories and the ads. Three multiple
choice questions were asked about each story. Single multiple-choice questions
were asked to test recognition of the brands and the ad claims separately.
Attitude toward each of the six ads was measured with a four-item scale based
on traditional Aad measures commonly used in advertising, marketing, and
consumer research (e.g., Gardner, 1985; Gunther & Thorson, 1992; Lutz & Belch,
1983; Machleit & Wilson, 1988; MacKenzie, Lutz, & Belch, 1986; Mitchell, 1986;
Mitchell & Olson, 1986; Phelps & Thorson, 1991; Putrevu & Lord, 1994; Thorson &
Coyle, 1993). The four 7-point semantic differential items were:
unpleasant/pleasant, irritating/not irritating, boring/interesting, and
dislike/like (alpha coefficient = .85 for the students, .91 for the general
Attitude toward the stories was measured with a modification of the above
scale, specifically three 7-point semantic differential items suited for news
stories. For each story, the items were: boring/interesting, appealing/not
appealing, and dislike/like (alpha coefficients = .88 for both the student and
Attitude toward the brand was measured with three items for each of the
advertised brands: good/bad, unfavorable/favorable, and like/dislike, based on
Machleit and Wilson (1988) and Yi (1991) (alpha coefficient = .93 for the
students, .96 for the general sample).
Likelihood of subscribing to the online news service was measured with a scale
adopted from the advertising literature (e.g., Schumann, Thorson, Wood, Wright,
& Dyer, under review). Participants were asked to "rate the probability that
you would subscribe to (name of online news service for the three treatment
conditions; the Web pages you viewed today for the control/no identity
condition), if you could." The statement was deliberately left ambiguous in
terms of whether the service is free or paid, to reflect the online news reality
mixture of paid and free services. Three answer options were given as 7-point
semantic differential scales: unlikely/likely, probable/improbable, and
impossible/possible (alpha coefficient = .86 for the students, .92 for the
The other behavioral response, purchase intention for the advertised
products and brands (a dependent variable), was measured with a scale previously
tested by Putrevu and Lord (1994). Participants were asked, assuming they could
buy any of the products they saw advertised, to indicate whether they strongly
agreed, agreed, disagreed, or strongly agreed with each of three statements:
"It is very likely that I will buy (brand);" "I will purchase (brand) the next
time I want/need a (product);" and "I will definitely try (brand)" (alpha
coefficient = .88 for the student sample, =.94 for the general sample).
Involvement with each of the ads was measured with a shortened version of
Zaichkowsky's most recently revised and tested Personal Involvement Inventory
(Zaichkowsky, 1990). That scale had been shortened to 10 items already. But
because ad involvement was measured for each of the six ads, in addition to a
number of other measures, the scale needed to be shortened further. The ad
involvement scale used here consisted of five 7-point semantic differential
items: enjoyable/not enjoyable, entertaining/not entertaining, important/not
important, relevant to me/irrelevant to me, and appealing/unappealing (alpha
coefficient = .89 for the students, .91 for the general sample).
The 1994 Zaichkowsky Personal Involvement Inventory was also modified and
used to measure story involvement. Three items were used for each of the six
stories: entertaining/not entertaining, important/not important, and relevant
to me/not relevant to me (alpha coefficients = .62 for the students, .54 for
the general sample). These were the lowest reliability coefficients among all
scales, perhaps because the personal involvement inventory was originally
designed for advertising. Nevertheless, it appears to be adequate for stories,
but more so in the student sample.
Frequency of using the Web was measured with a question about how often
participants used computers: every day, often, sometimes, rarely, or never.
Length of using the Web was measured with a question about whether participants
had used computers for more than two years, between one and two years, between
six months and a year, between three and six months, less than three months, or
not at all. Self-assessed Web experience were measured with a semantic
differential item, asking participants to choose an option between 1) very
experienced and 7) not experienced at all. Attitudes toward the Web was
measured with six 7-point semantic differential items: easy to access/hard to
access, frustrating/not frustrating, fun to use/not fun to use,
boring/interesting, informative/not informative, and enjoyable/not enjoyable.
Use of, experience with, and attitudes toward the Web formed a single scale
(alpha coefficients = .82 for the students, .80 for the general sample).
For all variables measured with semantic differential scales, the valence
of the anchors was randomized in the questionnaire to control for acquiescence,
but the statistical analyses reversed some items so a higher value would mean
more positive attitude or perception.
Media use questions were asked toward the end of the questionnaire, long
after all credibility questions. Shaw (1973) has found that media use and
perceived credibility questions are correlated, so if a media use question is
asked before the credibility questions, the response may be distorted. Both
exposure and attention to news in daily newspapers, television and newsmagazines
were measured as recommended by Chaffee and Schleuder (1986). The wording of
the questions was based on other research by Chaffee (Chaffee, Moon, McDevitt,
McLeod, Eveland, & Horowitz, 1996; Chaffee, Moon, McDevitt, Pan, McLeod,
Eveland, & Horowitz, 1995; Chaffee, Zhao, & Leshner, 1994; McDevitt, Chaffee,
Moon, McLeod, Eveland, Horowitz, & Pan, 1996; Zhao & Chaffee, 1995), as well as
Drew and Weaver (1991) and Weaver and Drew (1993). Specifically, participants
were asked to indicate in two separate questions how many days per week (from
zero to seven) they read a daily newspaper and watched news on television in an
average week. In a similar way, they were asked how often they read news
magazines, such as Time, Newsweek, US News & World Report: every week, every
other week, once a month, less than once a month, or not at all. Additionally,
participants were asked in three separate questions how much attention they
generally paid to news in each of these media: a lot of attention, some
attention, only a little attention, or no attention at all (the answer options
were reversed for the different questions to control for acquiescence).
Attitudes toward the news media were measured with 19 statements tested in a
study by McLeod, Kosicki, Amor, Allen, and Philps (1986). They found that the
statements were a reliable measure of perceptions of/attitudes toward the news
media in six categories: 1) quality of news; 2) overall pattern of news; 3)
negativity of news content; 4) control of news media and dependency on them; 5)
news media as serving special interests; and 6) news media significance in
society. These measures appeared to be well suited for controlling for
attitudes toward the news media. Participants were asked to indicate whether
they strongly agreed, agreed, disagreed, or strongly agreed with each of the 19
In this study, however, for both samples, most responses to the 19 statements
loaded in an interpretable fashion on two factors (some responses did not load
on any factors and one statement loaded on its own factor). Careful examination
of the pattern for the student sample revealed the two factors were most likely
negative and positive attitudes toward the news media. The first factor
included statements about the news media as pursuing their own interests and
acting as spokesman for special groups instead of serving the public, failing to
cover most important stories, reflecting journalists' biases, and
sensationalizing news coverage to sell more copies and improve ratings. The
second factor included statements about the news media providing a service
essential to democracy, including thorough and complete information, and
presenting an accurate picture of what they cover. Factor 1 explained 30% of
the variance, Factor 2 explained 27%. Alpha coefficients for these factors in
the student sample were .71 for the negative attitude scale and .57 for the
positive attitude scale. It must be noted that when a six-factor solution
reflecting McLeod et al.'s six dimensions was forced, the alpha coefficients for
each factor were lower than the above values.
For the general sample, the 19 items did not load on the originally found six
factors, either. Again, two distinct factors were formed (again, some
statements did not load on any factors and one statement, not the same as in the
student sample, loaded on its own factor). But there was a noteworthy
difference in the two factors for the students and the two factors for the
general sample. Inspection of the items loading on each factor showed the
dimensions were somewhat different from the simplistic negative vs. positive
attitudes toward the news media. Rather, the first factor for the general
sample seemed to tap specifically into people's criticism of the actual
operation and quality of the news media, while the second factor seemed to tap
into perceptions of the normative role of the media.
The specific statements loaded on F1 (operation or content) were about the news
media having too much control, pursuing their own interests, not covering most
important stories, reflecting the biases of journalists, and sensationalizing
coverage to make profit. So far, these statements were all part of Factor 1 for
the student sample. But Factor 1 for the general sample also included, with a
negative correlation, the two statements that the information in the media is
thorough and complete and that news stories present an accurate picture of what
But it was items in Factor 2 for the general sample that suggested the
interpretation of the two factors as criticism of the actual operation and
quality of the news media vs. perceptions of their normative role. As with the
student sample, Factor 2 included the statement that the media are essential to
democracy. In addition, it included perceptions about the meaning of news and
its pattern, such as "individual news items may seem fragmentary but in the long
run the news forms a meaningful pattern" and (with a negative correlation) "news
is mostly a series of unconnected events that don't add up to much." This
factor also included the statement that people can obtain a diversity of points
of view if they use a variety of media. Factor 1 for the general sample
explained 31% of the variance and Factor 2 explained 11%. The alpha coefficient
for criticism of the news media's operation/content scale was .73; the alpha
coefficient for perceptions of the news media's normative role was .56. Again,
a solution forcing six factors to follow McLeod et al.'s original categories
yielded less satisfactory coefficients.
The data were analyzed separately for the student and general samples to allow
comparisons between them. Although, the demographics, computer and Web use and
experience, and news media use and attitudes of the two samples shared some
characteristics, they also exhibited several notable differences. The main
differences were in the students' greater use of and experience with the Web and
in the general sample's greater use of daily newspapers and television news.
Statistical tests used included t-tests, Analysis of Variance, Analysis of
Covariance, hierarchical multiple regression, and repeated measures multiple
regression controlling for a number of possible confounding variables and the
two-way interactions between them and the main effect. Various commands in the
SAS programming language were used to perform these tests.
One of the most interesting findings, even before testing the hypotheses,
was that the condition to which participants were exposed did not always match
the perceived source of content. For example, in the newspaper condition, 86%
of the general sample perceived the content provider to be a newspaper. In the
television condition, the match between experimental condition and perceived
content provider was lower, which is reasonable, given that no audio or video
was used. In the no identity condition, the biggest group (50%) perceived it to
be a newspaper. This is an important finding because it shows the default value
for this study was a newspaper. It is not surprising as the stimulus material
looked like a newspaper, with its column format. Therefore, this finding shows
the critical role of the format of online news services. Even if the actual
content provider is unknown or may not have anything to do with journalism, a
newspaper-like format may cause some people to perceive it as associated with
journalism and therefore more credible.
Hypothesis 1 predicted that an online news content provider with a journalistic
identity (e.g., a newspaper or a T network) would be perceived as most
credible, compared to a content provider whose identity is unknown and a content
provider whose identity is not associated with journalism. In the general
sample, the newspaper was seen as most credible. In the student sample, the
television network was seen as most credible. These results are especially
strong because they emerged in stringent statistical analyses that controlled
for demographics; use of, experience with, and attitude toward the Web; and use
of and attitude toward the news media. Thus, H1 was supported.
Part (a) of hypotheses 2 and 3 predicted that stories and ads in an
online news service perceived as most credible would be seen as most
credible. As hypothesized, the overall perceived credibility of the content
provider would determine the perceived credibility of both the stories and the
ads in the online news service. This result is also from a statistical test
that controlled for the effects of demographics; use of, experience with, and
attitude toward the Web; and use of and attitude toward the news media. Thus,
parts (a) and (b) of H2 and H3 received full support
Part (b) of hypotheses 2 and 3 further predicted that stories and ads
placed in an online news content provider that is associated with journalism
would be seen as most credible. Again, as hypothesized, the identity of the
content provider played a role in participants' perceptions of story
credibility. Local and national stories provided by a source perceived as a
newspaper (for the general sample) and seen in the television condition (for
the student sample) were rated as the most credible, as predicted in H2. For
the general sample, there was evidence that a content provider with a
journalistic identity enhanced perceptions of ad credibility, as predicted in
H3. For example, for five out of the six ads, mean credibility ratings were
the highest when the content provider was perceived to be a newspaper. And
for the sixth ad, the mean credibility rating was the highest when the content
provider was perceived to be a television network. These effects did not
reach statistical significance, however, and could not be confirmed in tests
that controlled for demographics; use of, experience with, and attitude toward
the Web; and use of and attitude toward the news media.. Thus, part (b) of H3
received full support, while part (b) of H3 was not supported.
Hypothesis 4 predicted that stories in an online service perceived as most
credible (part a) and associated with journalism (part b) would be remembered
best. As predicted, the greater the perceived credibility of the content
provider overall, the better the recall for the stories was, but only in the
student sample. There was also evidence that a content provider associated
with journalism had an effect on story recall. For example, in the student
sample, story recall was the highest for newspaper as perceived content
provider, and in the general sample, story recall had the highest mean for
television network as perceived content provider. But these results did not
reach statistical significance and were only found in analyses that did not
control for demographics; use of, experience with, and attitude toward the
Web; and use of and attitude toward the news media. Thus, part (a) of H4
received support, but part (b) did not.
Hypothesis 5 predicted that ads placed in and brands promoted in an online news
service perceived as most credible (part a) and associated with journalism (part
b) would be remembered best. One measure of memory for ads was the likelihood
of giving neutral responses to questions about the ads. It was observed during
the experiment that participants from both samples who claimed they did not
remember the ads they saw tended to systematically give neutral ratings to the
ads. The statistical analyses revealed that the less credible the content
provider was perceived to be overall, the greater the likelihood of giving
neutral ad ratings was. The result was obtained from analyses controlling for
the effects of demographics; use of, experience with, and attitude toward the
Web; and use of and attitude toward the news media in the general sample, but
not in the student sample. Whether the content provider was associated with
journalism or not, however, did not matter in terms of producing a statistically
significant difference in giving systematically neutral ad ratings. Thus, part
(a) of H4 was supported, but part (b) was not.
Hypothesis 6 predicted that stories in an online news service perceived as
most credible (part a) and associated with journalism (part b) would be liked
the most. In the general sample, attitudes toward the stories were enhanced
if the content provider overall was perceived as credible, as predicted in
part (a). In addition, as further predicted in that hypothesis, there was
evidence in both samples that the perceived identity of the content provider
influenced attitudes toward the stories. For example, in both the general and
the student samples when the content provider was perceived as a newspaper,
five out of the six stories were liked the most. In the student sample, the
one story for which the newspaper did not have the highest mean was when tele
vision was the perceived content provider -- indicating a positive effect of
the journalistic identity. In the general sample, the only mean that differed
was for a travel story and it was the highest for the travel agency as a
content provider. This makes sense; a content provider specialized in travel
is reasonable to be associated with better attitudes toward a story on a topic
within the specialization of the source. It must be noted, however, that
these results were obtained only in tests that did not control for the effects
of demographics; use of, experience with, and attitude toward the Web; or news
media use and attitudes toward them. But it is important that they were
significant and consistent across the two samples. Thus, parts (a) and (b) of
H6 were supported.
Hypothesis 7 predicted that ads placed in and brands promoted in an online
news provider perceived as most credible (part a) and associated with
journalism (part b) would be liked the most. Part (a) was supported for the
student sample -- the more credible the content provider was perceived to be,
the better the attitude toward the ads was. But the results for part (b) were
more complicated. Specifically, in a statistical analysis that did not
control for the effects of demographics; use of, experience with, and attitude
toward the Web; and use of and attitude toward the news media, five out of the
six ads were liked the most when newspaper was perceived as the content
provider. That was the case in the general sample. On the other hand, for
both the general and the student samples, when the statistical analyses
controlled for the effects of demographics; use of, experience with, and
attitude toward the Web; and use of and attitude toward the news media,
attitude toward the ads was best when the travel agency was the actual or
perceived content provider. That is, when all participants were made
"equal," the travel agency online enhanced attitude toward the ads the most;
newspaper came in second. What this notable discrepancy between the two
analyses means is that attitudes toward the ads in online environments vary
with demographics and individual differences, such as age; experience with and
attitude toward the Web; and use of news media. It is likely that people who
are older, who have a formed habit of using newspapers and news magazines, but
also those more regularly using the Web and with a positive attitude toward
it, tend to have a more positive attitude toward the ads when the content
provider is a newspaper.
Consistent with H7, effects on attitudes toward the advertised brands were
also investigated. In both the general and the student samples, there was
evidence that greater perceived credibility of the content provider overall
was associated with better attitude toward the brands. This was true both for
a model that did not control for other variables and for a model that
controlled for demographics; use of, experience with and attitude toward the
Web; and use of and attitude toward the news media. And in the general
sample, for five out of the six ads, attitude toward the brand was the highest
when the content provider was a television network and for one ad, newspaper
as perceived content provider significantly enhanced attitude toward the
brand. These effects were not observed in the student sample.
Hypothesis 8 predicted that likelihood of subscribing to the online news
service would be the highest for the content provider perceived as most
credible (part a) and associated with journalism (part b). Both parts of this
hypothesis received full support. First, the greater the perceived credibility
of the content provider was, the better the likelihood of subscribing to the
online news service. This was true for both the general and the student
samples. In addition, for both samples, the mean likelihood of subscribing to
the online news service was the highest when the content provider was
perceived to be a newspaper. This occurred even in stringent statistical
analyses, controlling for the effects of demographics; use of, experience
with, and attitude toward the Web; and use of and attitude toward the news
media. In the student sample, the mean likelihood of subscribing to the
online news service when the content provider was a newspaper was
significantly higher than for the other content providers. The results were
in the same direction for the general sample, but the differences in the means
did not reach statistical significance.
Hypothesis 9 predicted that purchase intention would be the highest for
products and brands advertised in an online news provider that is perceived as
most credible (part a) and associated with journalism (part b). The hypothesis
was not supported in its entirety. Neither perceived credibility nor identity
of the content provider had an effect on purchase intention for the products,
services and brands advertised in the online services to which participants were
exposed. This is not surprising -- earlier studies of source credibility
effects on purchase behavior in general have not shown an association even for
To sum up, this study used both a highly controlled research method and
statistical analyses that controlled for the effects of a variety of possible
intervening variables in the hypotheses-testing process. But the design and
samples of the study also allow insights across diverse populations, as well as
generalization across various types of news stories, product categories, and
advertising messages. Many interesting and encouraging findings for the
journalism industry emerged. As with any medium, perceptions of the online news
service and its content were strongly influenced by demographics, such as age,
gender, ethnicity, income, education, and ideology. In addition, use of,
experience with, and attitudes toward the Web; and exposure and attention to and
attitudes toward the news media had consistent effects on the participants'
perceptions of the online news service, and the stories and ads in it. The
study showed in varying degrees that the perceived credibility of the online
content provider positively influenced the perceived credibility of the stories
and ads, memory for stories and ads, attitude toward the stories, the ads, and
the brands, and the likelihood of subscribing to the online news service (but
not purchase intention for the advertised products, services, or brands).
These are important findings because they show audiences in general do not just
blindly take information from the Web, but they have the ability to and do
critically assess Web sources, according to their perceived credibility.
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media to the new medium. Most important for journalism as an institution, there
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