Perceptions of Traditional American Journalists
Toward the Internet as a News Source: A Critical Approach
A paper presented to the
Mass Communication & Society Division
of the 1998 AEJMC Convention
Thomas E. Ruggiero
319 West Hall
Department of Journalism
School of Communications
Bowling Green State University
Bowling Green, OH 43403
419.372.8349 - office 419.352.5532 - home
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Perceptions of Traditional American Journalists
Toward the Internet as a News Source: A Critical Approach
This study examines, from a critical perspective, the perception of traditional
American journalists toward the Internet as a news source. Specifically, it
argues that because traditional American journalists
are socialized both ideologically and professionally into the dominant ideology,
many are refusing to share their elite positions as disseminators of news with
the Internet. Analyzed data from the Lexis-Nexis database and American
journalism review magazines indicates that a concerted effort by traditional
American journalists to repair the elite news paradigm against incursion by the
Internet is occurring.
Internet as a News Source
Perceptions of Traditional American Journalists
Toward the Internet as a News Source: A Critical Approach
Critical mass communication scholars have long argued the hegemonic nature of
American media institutions (Gitlin, 1980; Hall et al., 1980; Williams, 1977).
Journalistic production often appears to be dependent on the U.S. business
system. Broadcast networks, newspapers, and magazines are run like other U.S.
corporations, "by boards of directors composed mostly of persons drawn from the
moneyed strata of society" (Parenti, 1986, p. 35). Some scholars argue that
freedom of the press belongs to the people who own the institutions, and because
mass media's first obligation is to make money for their owners, control of
media dissemination is protected by those in power (Carmody, 1977).
Equally important in the hegemonic process is the notion that the mass media
have become core systems for the dissemination of elite ideology (Altschull,
1995; Gitlin, 1980; ). This elite ideology "represents a society-level
phenomenon and is a belief in the value of the capitalist economic system,
private ownership, pursuit of profit by self-interested entrepreneurs, and free
markets" (Shoemaker and Reese, 1991, p. 184). Even non-critical mass
communication scholars tend to view the journalist as a broker between advocates
in society with messages to send, and the public (Westley and MacLean, 1957).
The proclivity of journalists to engage in "agenda-setting" (Long, 1958; McCombs
and Shaw, 1993); and "priming" and "framing" (Iyengar and Simon, 1993) have
become accepted theories even by those not given to Marxist leanings
The purpose of this study is to investigate how traditional or mainstream
journalists perceive the Internet, given their elite positioning in the
capitalist economic system. Previous studies have indicated that many mainstream
journalists view much Internet content as suspicious at best, and worthless at
worst (Ketterer, 1998, Ruggiero and Winch, 1996). As professionals, traditional
journalists may be reflecting more than "technophobia," if they perceive the
Internet as deviant. They may be constrained by the framework of their own
ideological and professional socialization from accepting the Internet as a
viable disseminator of news. This study seeks to explore this question by
conducting an analysis of rhetoric about the Internet available in major
American newspapers. First, however, theories of socialization of traditional
journalists in the mass communication literature will be reviewed. Second, the
theoretical perspective used in this study, "paradigm repair" will be
introduced. Third, a brief discussion of the Internet as a "new medium" will be
presented. Fourth, the methodology and data collection used in this study is
reviewed. Finally, the findings and conclusions of the study are discussed.
As disseminators of elite ideology, journalists themselves are socialized in
several crucial ways. First, as a rule, journalists are exposed to similar
communities, schools, colleges, graduate schools, popular culture and media that
help socialize other Americans into the dominant belief system (Parenti, 1986).
A majority view themselves as politically liberal (Lichter, Rothman & Lichter,
1986). Since mainstream journalists rarely cross taboo boundaries and are rarely
reined in by their bosses, most have no idea they are on an "ideological leash"
(p. 35). Second, under the rubrics of "balanced" and "objective," mainstream
journalists are even allowed a relative degree of independence if they meet at
least two criteria in the course of their work: the ability to produce copy that
is ideologically acceptable and the ability to produce copy that is competently
crafted (Parenti, 1986). These two criteria are discussed in depth below.
Ideologically acceptable copy
Breed (1955) argued that journalists are thoroughly socialized into the
dominant belief system in the newsroom. A journalist learns newsroom policy by
internalizing "the rights and obligation of his (her) status and its norms and
values. He (She) learns to anticipate what is expected of him (her) so as to win
rewards and avoid punishments" (p. 328). In his Social Control in the Newsroom,
Breed cites six factors that play a role in newsroom conformity: (1)
institutional authority and sanctions, (2) feelings of obligation and esteem for
superiors, (3) mobility aspirations, (4) absence of conflicting group
allegiance, (5) the pleasant nature of the activity, and (6) news as a value in
itself. Thus, whether journalists acknowledge it or not, individual attitudes
are influenced by a set of norms shared with other individuals. Those
individuals constitute a reference group (Newcomb, 1950). In the newsroom, the
reference group, which contains elite executives and experienced journalists, is
unable to change policy significantly because first, "it is the group charged
with carrying out the policy, and second, because the policy maker, the
publisher, if often insulated on the delicate issue of policy" (Breed, 1955, p.
While policy rigidity can be undermined by journalists under certain
conditions, the socio-cultural nature of the newsroom contributes a ripe
environment for conformity. A journalist's source of rewards is not from readers
and viewers, who are clients, but from colleagues and superiors. "Instead of
adhering to societal and professional ideals, he (she) re-defines his (her)
values to the more pragmatic level of the newsroom group" (p. 335). Conformity
is not automatic because of ethical journalistic norms, but compensation include
elite status and acceptance in a group engaged in interesting, diverse, and
often important work. So, rather than serving as mirrors of reality, as the
press is often presented, journalists often end up acting what Graber (1989)
quoting Stanley Bigman calls "rivals of conformity" (p. 87-88).
Competently crafted copy
Competently crafted copy is contexualized in media frames that are "persistent
patterns of cognition, interpretation, and presentation, of selection, emphasis,
and exclusion" (Gitlin, 1980, p. 7). Newsgathering routines, especially the
development of beats and the reliance on official or elite sources--while
designed to reduce workload--also serve to constrain journalists in the
hegemonic process (Borquez, 1993; Fishman, 1980; Sigal, 1993; Tuchman, 1978).
First, the beat is a "system of regularized contacts with sources on a
particular topic. The sources comprising a beat do not emerge by accident and
tend to be legitimate newsmakers, most often government officials" (Borquez,
1993, p. 36-37). Secondly, as producers of meaning journalists do not use all
potential sources for news information. Generally journalists choose sources who
are considered authoritative (Sahr, 1993). Source authority, according to Sahr,
is generally comprised of at least three types: 1) holders or candidates for
formal government positions; 2) interest group or company representatives; or 3)
"experts" in a topic being given news coverage. By using primarily elite
sources, journalists are provided a safeguard for their own professional
Stempel (1985) concluded from his study of six newspapers and three network
newscasts that there is a general notion as to what makes a suitable news
package. Reliance on elite and "acceptable" images, reinforced by deadline
pressures and economy of presentation, create a hegemonic frame journalists make
news judgments through: 1) enduring values; 2) climates of opinion; 3) policy
frameworks; and 4) stereotypes (Sahr, 1993). "Given these orientations, almost
never do American journalists undercut, challenge, or question dominant values,
or, it appears, even recognize them as anything other than universal" (p.
156-157). Gitlin (1980) also describes American journalists and their hegemonic
Journalists are socialized from childhood, and then trained,
recruited, assigned, edited, rewarded, and promoted on the job; they
decisively shape the ways in which news is defined, events are
considered newsworthy, and objectivity is secured. The fact that news is
managed routinely, automatically, as reporters import definitions of
newsworthiness from editors and institutional beats, and accept the
analytical frameworks of officials even while taking up adversary
positions. When reporters make decisions about what to cover and how,
rarely do they deliberate about ideological assumptions or political
consequences. Simply by doing their jobs, journalists tend to serve the
political and economic elite definitions of reality. (p. 11-12)
Ultimately, and unfortunately, the consequences of journalists "doing their
jobs" has serious repercussions for the American public and the democratic
process. For example, from their examination of the press's coverage of the
Watergate break-in, Lang and Lang (1983) contend that the language used by the
media can affect the perception of importance of an issue. Initial media
references to the Watergate break-in as a "caper" tended to downplay its
importance. Months later, when its significance began to be ascertained, it
began to be described as a "scandal." More recently, during the first several
weeks leading up to the Gulf War, the public had little opportunity to debate
the pros and cons of the military option, due in part, to the news media's
"chronic dependence upon officialdom to provide the main focus of their work and
the sources of their criticism (Cook, 1994, p.127).
McQuail (1994) asserts that mass media "do not define reality on their own but
give preferential access to the definitions of those in authority" (p. 99).
Thus, through hegemony, journalists tend to define unconventional opposition to
the status quo as insurgent and deviant. One process by which traditional
journalists attempt to identify and normalize violations of central tenets of
the elite news product, Reese (1989) has called "paradigm repair." Modeled after
Kuhn's notion of paradigm as "an accepted model or pattern" (1962, p. 23),
Reese's model maintains that like all paradigms, the news model faces the
problem of "anomalous or troublesome cases that fall partly within the defining
logic of the paradigm, yet fail to conform to other defining characteristics of
the paradigm" (Bennett et al., 1985, p. 55). Thus, nontraditional news stories
such as those emanating from the Internet may threaten the elite news paradigm
by "calling into question its limitations and biases, and therefore must be
repaired" Reese, 1989, p. 1). This study will use the concept of paradigm repair
as the theoretical perspective through which to analyze traditional journalists
perceptions of the Internet.
New Media as Deviant
One possible reason for the Internet's perception as deviant by off-line
journalists, may be its dissimilarities with traditional American mass media
institutions. Four primary features of new media contrast substantially with
traditional media: decentralization; high capacity; interactivity; and
flexibility (McQuail, 1994). More definitively, in new media such as the
Internet, supply and choice are no longer predominantly controlled by elite
sources; restrictions of cost, distance and capacity are ameliorated; the
receiver can select, answer back, exchange and be linked to other receivers
directly; and flexibility of form, content, and use appear to be intrinsic. Not
surprisingly then, the Internet may indeed represent a challenge to the
production, distribution and basic forms of traditional media institutions--at
least in the eyes of traditional journalists. Supporting this, conclusions from
a recent study indicated that many mainstream journalists view the Internet as
suspicious and unreliable (Ruggiero and Winch, 1996). More culpably, Godwin
(1997) argued that many traditional journalists support freedom of the press in
theory, but not in practice. Most traditional journalists, Godwin believes, are
"not ready for a world in which everyone gets to be Clark Kent or Lois Lane" (p.
The traditional media establish what is normal and what is deviant based on how
they portray people and ideas (Dreier, 1982). Efforts to engage in paradigm
repair is often framed in arguments that attack deviant journalists, news
stories and the medium of the Internet itself. Those attacks most often
correspond to ideologically unacceptable and incompetently crafted criteria
(Parenti, 1986). However, it may be more difficult for traditional journalists
to attack the ideological deviance of the Internet than its lack of
"professionalism." First, the Internet has been linked by some scholars to
"democracy" and "free speech" (Browning, 1996; Berman, J., 1997; Behar, J. E.,
1997) and most traditional American journalists would hesitate to challenge it
accordingly. Also, as previously indicated, Sahr (1993) noted that American
journalists rarely challenge, or question dominant values, or even recognize
them as anything other than universal.
However, traditional journalists are well-versed in the "competency of their
craft," and readily defend it from aberrant professional behavior. Thus, this
study contends that it is from this evidentiary arena most reportage of Internet
deviancy arises. In order to determine if this is the case, this study borrows
from Altschull's (1984) model of journalism as applied to market nations to
establish a traditional mass media paradigm of competently crafted news.
Collected data was analyzed and discussed through two criteria: credibility and
accountability. While Bennett et al. (1985) and Reese's work (1989) used a case
study approach, this study will analyze the language used by traditional
journalists in numerous mass media publications to describe, as deviant, the
Internet and Internet journalists and news content.
The Lexis-Nexis information retrieval service was used to collect full-text,
unedited major newspaper stories that specifically discussed the question of
credibility, accountability, authenticity and authority of Internet news
information. Search modes included [General News Topics ]: Major Newspapers.
The stories analyzed in this study appeared on October 16, 1993 and ended on
March 27, 1998. Search terms were selected for their ability to retrieve
articles relevant to the topic. Based on the terms [Internet ] and [news and
sources and hoax OR scam ], the search revealed 158 news stories. All of these
were analyzed and appropriate selections were adopted as representative data. In
addition, A library catalog search of articles appearing in U.S. journalism
review magazines over the last three years was also conducted for indications of
past and current support for the perception of the Internet as deviant.
In this section relevant examples of the thematic arguments used by traditional
journalists to portray the Internet as deviant are presented. They are discussed
within two categories: 1) credibility, which includes accuracy and authority;
and 2) accountability, which includes being socially responsible and
professional. In each of these categories traditional journalists have
formulated arguments in order to distance the methodology, content, and apparent
function of the deviant version from commonly accepted journalism standards and
to suggest that this kind of behavior is deviant.
Analysis of the data revealed that one of the primary arguments against the
Internet was its inaccuracy and failure to seek the truth. Numerous traditional
news stories targeted the Internet as a source of bogus news.
Credibility in the news business depends on the truth, facts and trusted
sources. The advent of the Internet as a mass communications medium creates a
whole new set of problems because gatekeepers often don't censor what gets put
into print. On the Net, it's often difficult to tell truth from fiction (Lorek,
Other stories identified the Internet's propensity to disseminate hoaxes and
urban legends. Hoaxes identified range from Pierre Salinger's allegation that a
U.S. Navy missile downed TWA Flight 800 (Ketterer, 1998; Ruggiero and Winch,
1996), to novelist Kurt Vonnegut's alleged MIT commencement speech in which he
advised the Class of '97 to "wear sunscreen, sing, floss and do one thing
everyday that scares you" (http://www.chicago.tribune.com/
news/current/schmich0601.htm). Urban legends include "Microsoft bought the
Vatican, The Good Times virus is preparing to destroy millions of hard drives,
Snapple gives money to the Ku Klux Klan. E-mail will soon require stamps"
The faux-pas of rogue journalist Pierre Salinger and others are seen as an
extremely persuasive argument against the reliability of the Internet to provide
accurate news. In particular, dissemination of these hoaxes is portrayed by
traditional journalists as grossly and harmfully inaccurate news reports
publicized by irresponsible people. For example:
Drudge's and Salinger's blunders were not the playful hoaxes that appear on the
Net with frequency. Nor were they the obviously absurd yarns spun by the Net's
unhealthily large population of conspiracy theorists and nuts.. But the stories
could never have reared their heads to a level of national consciousness without
the Internet. Drudge, with his anonymously e-mailed tips, would have no stories
to run on his site and no site to run them on. Salinger would have had to have
hung out at a bar with conspiracy theorists to pick up his precious
misinformation (McAllester, 1997).
Traditional journalists tend to use elite or authoritative sources, and failure
by Internet journalists to comply with this norm was cited as one of the
weaknesses in the Internet three years ago :
Conventional news media - newspapers, TV, radio - come equipped with editors
whose job it is to cast a skeptical eye on stories. By contrast, the Internet is
a dazzling exhibition of free speech without the usual editors, fact-checkers or
media ethics codes to give it credibility. You get what you get. By design, the
Internet has no editor with guts to say: "We can't print that because we can't
prove it." Or, with the brains to ask: "Who are the sources? Can they be
trusted? (A media virus, 1995)
While more recently, acceptance of the Internet has been growing among
traditional journalists, similar arguments are still appearing in mainstream
mass media publications:
We make our judgments of the accuracy of television shows and newspapers by
monitoring their performance and comparing what they say with what we already
know. The complication on the Internet is that there are potentially millions of
sources instead of the relatively few we're used to, and to some extent people
will have to learn to do the kind of fact-checking professional journalists do
Lack of authority is also linked with the dangers of relying electronic
For one thing, the potential for journalists to be duped by fake electronic
documents is a growing danger. With paper documents, investigative reporters
often try to judge the authenticity by the appearance, by letterhead imprints,
time stamps or other distinctive markings. Because computers can create almost
any visual look or type style, electronic documents are much easier to forge.
And because of the immense complexities of electronic networks, sources of
information can be disguised (Wilmsen, 1997).
By-and-large however, the most frequent argument made by traditional
journalists against the Internet was its free-for-all nature, an anathema to the
use of newsgathering routines, especially the development of beats and the
reliance on official or elite sources:
The cyberspace world is still in its Wild West stage, where the rules of the
road are unwritten. A lot of information on the Internet falls somewhere between
tabloid journalism and old-fashioned chain letters, thus meriting a high degree
of skepticism. As in the world of commerce, if something sounds too good, or too
clever, to be true, it probably isn't true. On the Internet, the only rule that
makes sense is caveat lector: let the reader beware (Seeing and believing,
Analysis of the data concerning credibility suggests that traditional
journalists tend to characterize the Internet in several negative ways: as a
source of bogus news, as a perpetuator of hoaxes and urban legends, and as a
purveyor of unreliable electronic documents. Also, traditional journalists tend
to rely on elite or authoritative sources and the beat system of newsgathering.
Thus, they tend to view the Internet as an unreliable, free-for-all source of
information, and this, perhaps more than the other reasons, is why the Internet
is perceived as outside the norm of traditional newsgathering routines and in
need of paradigm repair.
The data revealed that many traditional journalists, particularly print
journalists, characterize the Internet as a less-than-responsible medium, and
liken it to the worst in broadcast journalism. For example:
The Internet, which future historians might argue came into its own with this
sex scandal, much in the same way that the Persian Gulf War established CNN and
the idea of 24-hour news coverage. The news exploded throughout the electronic
intricacies of the Internet, and the informed, misinformed, opinionated,
outraged and just plain confused leaped to express themselves on the scandal
Some journalists contend that the Internet blatantly lacks accountability to
the professional standards of traditional journalism:
Using the Internet, any spinner of yarns can make up a story and spread it
around the world without any of the usually extensive fact-checking that
reporters and editors use. No serious person believes that the federal
government started the AIDS epidemic or blew up the Oklahoma City federal
building, but reports blaming the government for those and other disasters have
appeared on the Internet. A law professor told the Chicago Tribune's Coates that
the Internet carries false rumors to satisfy any taste, from "paint-ball
right-wingers to the paranoid left-wingers." Many of them spew anti-government
venom (World Information Web, 1996).
Other journalists contend that the ethical conduct of traditional journalism
is being violated by Internet reportage:
Journalism ethics specialists said that regardless of whether obtaining
electronic documents is against the law, the practice violates codes of the
profession (Wilmsen, 1997).
Finally, the Internet's growing ability to disseminate inaccurate information
to a broader audience is also a matter of great concern to traditional
The publication on the Internet last week of a photograph purporting to show
Diana, Princess of Wales, as she lay dying in the back of a crashed Mercedes --
and its publication on the front page of a French newspaper -- has set off a new
controversy over the ease with which inaccurate information can be disseminated
over the global computer network (Harmon, 1997).
Analysis of the data concerning accountability suggests that traditional
journalists tend to hold perceptions of the Internet as a less-than-responsible
medium, and liken it to the worst in broadcast journalism and talk radio.
Furthermore, they contend that professional standards of traditional journalism,
such as ethical conduct, are being abandoned by irresponsible Internet
reportage. Finally, a theme emerged that suggested that some traditional
journalists are concerned about the Internet's growing influence on a larger and
larger public, many who are unprepared for the barrage of inaccurate information
disseminated to their computers. Each of these perceptions appear to be robust
incentives for traditional journalists to perform paradigm repair against the
A recent Pew Research Center survey reveals that the credibility of journalists
has fallen sharply in the last 10 years (Nelson, 1997). Thus, as professionals,
traditional journalists may have much more at stake than merely "technophobia,"
when attacking the Internet. From the data analyzed in this study it became
apparent that issues of credibility and accountability were repetitive claims of
deviancy argued by traditional journalists. That credibility and accountability
are twin pillars in the dominant American journalism paradigm has been well
supported by previous studies (Tuchman, 1978; Gitlin, 1980; Stempel, 1985).
Thus, this study concludes that concerted effort by traditional journalists to
repair the dominant news paradigm against incursion by the Internet does indeed
This study also indicated that some journalism educators may share similar
prejudices against the Internet. A library catalog search of articles appearing
in U.S. journalism review magazines over the last three years revealed some past
and current support for the perception of the Internet as deviant. In the May,
1997 Columbia Journalism Review , media critic Tom Rosenstiel was quoted as
saying, "The risk exists that the wild culture of the Web will erode standards
of accuracy" (Hanson, 1997, ). In a more recent American Journalism Review
article, Staci D. Kramer was quoted as saying," There is a feeling that the
difference between people who were trained as journalists and people using the
Internet to act as journalists is that the first group adheres to a common set
of ethical guidelines, and the second doesn't feel that it has to" (Lynch, 1998,
p. 42). While it is not the conclusion of this study that the majority of
journalism educators are anti-Internet, the existence of rhetoric in review
magazines widely disseminated among the profession, indicates that that attitude
is shared by some.
Unquestionably, the image of the Internet has not been helped to have renowned
journalists such as Walter Cronkite speak ill of it. In November 1996, as the
premier speaker at the first Herb/Caen/San Francisco Chronicle Lecture , "the
most trusted man in America," preached sentiments shared by many mainstream
journalists. The Internet can be a valuable source of information, but can also
be a "frightful danger to all of us," Cronkite said (Lee, 1996).
Ultimately however, the conclusions of this study would be inaccurate if they
failed to acknowledge that a growing number of traditional journalists and
journalism educators are relinquishing outright dismissal of the Internet as
deviant and beginning to embrace its potential for news production. One example
of the praise it is receiving appeared in the July 1997 Columbia Journalism
Since networked new media can be interactive, on-demand, customizable; since it
can incorporate new combinations of text, images, moving images, and sound;
since can build new communities based on shared interests and concerns; and
since it has the almost unlimited space to offer levels of reportorial depth,
texture, and context that are impossible in any other medium--new media can
transform journalism (Pavlik, 1997, p.30).
But even here a note of caution must be offered. In an even more recent
Internet study, a mass communication scholar asserted:
These complexities shroud the reputation of the Internet at a crucial juncture
in its development as a communications medium. Legal and ethical issues
associated with interactive media threaten to be a perpetual challenge for
present and future on-line entrepreneurs (Smethers, 1998, p. 16).
Thus, the implications of this study are not overly optimistic that traditional
American journalism, and those scholars who examine it, will affably share with
the Internet, its elite position as disseminator of news. Socialization into the
dominant ideology is buttressed by a profession that utilizes newsgathering
routines such as "beats" and the reliance on official or elite sources, and is
constrained by deadline pressures and economy of presentation. This study
concludes that such a paradigm such may serve as much as a constriction on the
production of news as facilitation.
One implication of this study concerns the democratic potential of the
Internet, as some scholars have postulated. Critically, Beniger (1986) has
argued that the driving logic of technological communication has been toward
more powerful social control, rather than toward more democratic institutions.
But it would be a mistake to assume that the American corporate-financial
class--while powerful--is omnipotent (McQuail, 1994). Optimistically, McQuail
contends that practically all mass media have radical possibility, in the sense
of being potentially subversive of systems of social control. Unfortunately,
McQuail also argues: "While technology in general seems to increase the promise
of freedom of communication, the continued strength of institutional controls,
including those of the market, over actual flow and reception should not be
underestimated" (p. 25). Thus, in the U.S.'s market-driven economy, the future
of the Internet as an acknowledged disseminator of news, at least for critical
scholars, remains unanswered.
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