Is There a Tabloidization of Online News? A Content Analysis of Traditional News Websites

Abstract:

Recent changes in the habits of U.S. news consumers show an increase in use of online news resources. This study seeks to establish parameters for ‘tabloid’ and ‘traditional’ news dissemination techniques, and applies the qualifications for each category to a content analysis of the leading traditional online news resources. By using a Likert-type scale to rate the occurrence of tabloid and traditional elements of content and composition evident on the websites of CNN, ABC News and CBS News, one primary research question will be answered: Is there a tabloidization occurring in the top three traditional news websites? Over the course of 5 business days, a total of 150 articles were captured using screen shot technology and numerically assigned ratings based on specific criteria. Results indicate that a significant tabloidization has occurred in the content of all three websites. The implications of this study suggest further examination of how competition from celebrity news blogs and ‘Infotainment’ websites are pressuring traditional news outlets to adopt a more tabloid style of online presence in order to retain audience interest, further implying the possibility of a cultural shift in American expectations of information dissemination.


Introduction

The future of news in America is uncertain. Recent trends in the format of information dissemination show changes that reflect the dynamic media environment of the 21st century. In October 2008, the New York Times published an article highlighting the move from newspaper readership to online websites, citing the five percent decline in print circulation across the industry over the course of a year (Perez-Pena, 2008). The move toward Internet news consumption is not unique to newspapers; Broadcast television news has also seen a sharp decrease in ratings, while online news resources continue to gain in popularity.

The agency of individual Internet consumers raises unique issues in regard to the navigation of users toward ‘traditional’ or ‘tabloid’ style news websites. Subjective, user- based opinions on the ways in which news is qualified on the Internet creates challenges for traditional news outlets and their online presence. Competition for audiences between corporate news resources and celebrity blog websites is gaining strength, with sites such as PerezHilton.com reporting over 13.9 million hits per day in February 2009 (Reisinger, 2009), nearly half of CNN.com’s reported 35 million page views per day in 2008 (Arrington, 2008) and significantly more than half of CNN.com’s 22 million page views per day in 2009 (Quantcast, 2009).

In 2008, the Pew Research Center published the results of its biennial news consumption survey, which reinforced the changing trends in newsgathering habits. This report demonstrates a significant decrease in circulation newspaper readership, from 58 percent of U.S. citizens polled in 1993 to 34 percent in 2008. Similarly alarming statistics show local television news viewership dropping from 77 percent in 1993 to 52 percent in 2008, and nightly network news viewership declining from 60 percent in 1993 to only 29 percent in 2008. Correlating with the plummeting statistics of circulations newspaper readership and television news consumption is the increase in the popularity of Internet news resources. The Pew Report found that only two percent of those polled logged on to the Internet more than three days a week for news in 1996 compared to 37 percent in 2008 (Kohut, et. al., 2008).

The move from circulation newspaper readership and television news viewer-ship to online sources of newsgathering indicates an opportunity for closer inspection of the format and content of current online news resources. The Internet offers non-traditional and non-linear composition of content, where consumers hold the power to choose the content and focus of the news they access based on personal preference and interest. With the rising popularity of celebrity tabloid news blogs such as Perez Hilton, TMZ.com and ValleyWag (Scocco, 2008), traditional online news sources are reassessing how best to draw consumers toward their more traditional news sites. This study will explore the changing face of Internet news. By analyzing the content of the top three traditional news websites, this research question will be explored: Are the top three traditional online news sites shifting toward a more tabloid model of information dissemination?

Literature Review

In order to justify the methodology of this study, it is first necessary to establish the models of both tradition news and tabloid news that will be applied to the qualitative content analysis.

Traditional News

The idea of traditional news is inherently linked to the function of the media in society. The functional approach highlights five distinct ways the media serves its users: surveillance, correlation, transmission, entertainment and mobilization (Lasswell, 1948) (Wright, 1960). Each of these five elements represents a distinct role that the media fulfills. Surveillance is observation of the general environment and disclosure of information to people based on activities that may affect the community. Correlation is defined as the interpretation of news acquired through surveillance. Transmission is reflection through the media on an element of social inheritance, or the cultural values and beliefs of a given society (Lasswell, 1948). Entertainment indicates that the media must serve as a source of respite for the consumer that may tire of the surveillance and correlation aspects of the media (Wright, 1968). Finally, mobilization is the function of media in stimulating society’s interest and involvement in reported affairs, especially during times of social or community crisis (Grossman, 2006). This functional role is also relative to the value that news consumers ascribe to different forms of media. Although some may survey, transmit and be entertained by celebrity gossip, it is the value that is placed on the information being shared in regard to objectivity, balance, content and timeliness that also contributes to the way that traditional news is defined.

These five principals of the functional relationship between media and its consumers, as well as the value of consumed news media, serve as the foundations for what will be referred to in the content analysis as traditional news. Along with these five principals, it is also necessary to include the role of the professional journalist in the traditional model of news content. A professional journalist is an individual who reports, writes or edits news for publication and who is required to search out facts and opinions, which are then reported in a balanced and objective manner (Knight, 2008). A journalist’s opinion is reserved for the editorial page alone, and does not influence the neutrality of a news report (Pennell, n.d.). The basic ethical codes and canons of professional news media organizations often include the principal elements of truthfulness, accuracy, objectivity, impartiality, fairness and public accountability (Macdonald, 2006). Although the press has a long history of documented bias reporting, these ethical codes represent the ideal foundation of traditional journalism (Coffey, 1975). These definitions and standards will be included as an element of the parameters in which traditional news is being defined in this study.

The appearance and layout of information on web-based news sites is also a determining factor in the judgment between traditional and tabloid presentation. Adhering to more traditional notions of print layout and design, one might expect to find a ‘broadsheet’ style of information presentation from traditional online new sites. Although the term broadsheet refers literally to the format size of a printed newspaper, the connotation suggests that broadsheet newspapers, and their online counterparts have a reputation of intellectual content and in-depth exploration of hard news stories, often excluding sensationalist and celebrity material (Morton, 2005). Broadsheet print allows for two or more stories to be displayed on the front page, with the most important stories appearing above the fold of the paper (Schumacher, 2007). Connotations of the term broadsheet can be applied to styles of television news reporting as well, as national nightly news programs often fill hour-long programming spots and report in-depth on hard news stories. Like the organization of broadsheet newspapers, national nightly news programs feature a review of the top news stories, beginning with what is deemed the most important story of the day.

All of the preceding aspects of the definition of traditional news will be applied to quantify the ways in which the selected online news sites will be analyzed.  In summary, traditional online news style will contain aspects of the five elements of the functional media model, as well as contributions from professional journalists whose standards adhere to the ‘canons of journalism.’ The style and content of the news sites will be connotatively broadsheet in format, with the home page of the site displaying more than one story, and with the most important story appearing at the top of the page. The traditional online news site will also adhere to intellectual, hard news content with emphasis on in-depth investigation and analysis, and will show little sensationalism and celebrity material.

Tabloid News

For this content analysis, it is necessary to qualify not only the concept and parameters of traditional news but also that of tabloid news.  The word tabloid refers directly to the size of a circulation newspaper; yet, like broadsheet, the connotations of tabloid journalism indicate further meaning. In the United States, the tabloid news tradition began with the penny press in the mid 1800’s and further developed during the era of ‘yellow journalism,’ closely associated with William Randolph Hearst and his early 20th century publication the New York Journal (Grabianowski, 2005). The New York Journal thrived on publishing exaggerated, sensational and false stories often centered on celebrity scandal and gory murder stories.

As the political climate and subsequently the entertainment taste of the consuming public changed throughout the 20th century, so too did the content of tabloids. In the 1950’s, tabloid publishers such as Generoso Pope of the National Enquirer began moving away from negative and gory reports and shifted their focus toward more upbeat and light entertainment news, including supernatural phenomenon, miracle medical cures and more information on celebrity gossip (Ingram, n.d.). Scholarly research into tabloids and tabloid journalism often defines the tabloid as serving the ‘lowest common denominator’ of public taste; simplifying, personalizing and thriving on scandal and sensation. Ornebring (2004) posits that “tabloid journalism lowers the standards of public discourse…tabloid journalism may actually be a threat to democracy, breeding cynicism and lack of interest in politics, while ignoring the real political issues in favor of superficial political scandal.” Whal-Jorgensen (2008) argues that tabloids in the U.S. are often associated with readers of low-income and working-class demographic and are further chastised by the traditional journalism community because of their “sensationalist preoccupation with sleaze, sex, celebrity and sport.”

It is not only central to define the parameters of content by which tabloid will be applied in this study, but it is also important to quantify the appearance and layout of a tabloid style news website. In print, a tabloid paper holds markedly different traits than that of the broadsheet paper. Stafford (2001) explains design aspects of a tabloid’s front page as appearing with a large, red-colored sensational headline at the top of the page. Often underscored by an advertising banner featuring a sweepstakes or promotion, a tabloid’s front page is complete with corresponding photographs depicting the headlined report. Beyond the first page, the content of tabloid papers often centers on short and concise stories using sensational diction and accompanied by large fonts, photographs and illustrations (Malovic & Vilovic, 2004). Although the use of photographs and illustrations in news media has been linked to innovations in progressive journalism, the use of multiple graphics is more often linked to tabloid style information dissemination (Flocke, 1998).

In summary, tabloid style will be qualified in this study as containing an emphasis on sensationalism, celebrity news and superficial (as opposed to in-depth) reporting on news stories that lack evidence of investigation, and instead remain fixed on reiterating story headlines only. The appearance will be lurid and image-heavy, and the writing will contain exaggerated diction and simple language.

Beyond the qualification of the intended meaning ascribed to traditional and tabloid news, it is important to establish websites as the focus of further exploration into the possibility of a tabloidization  occurring in traditional news media. Many scholars have already explored the tabloidization  of television news, indicating that television programming has become the prime medium for adopting elements of print tabloids and tabloid journalism. Baker (2006) cites the deregulation of media outlets in the United States over the past 20 years as contributing to a rise in programming competition for viewers and consumers. This led the format of current affairs news to adapt to a more tabloid style of reporting in order to retain their audience. Critics of news and public affairs programming argue that, “there has been a move away from an emphasis on rational discourse, driven by ‘analysis’ to programs which have ‘pleasure’ or entertainment at their center” (Turner, 2005; Tracy, 1995 as cited in Baker, 2006). The competition for ratings and advertising revenues for informative television news programming has instigated a move toward ‘infotainment,’ described by Thussu (2007) as “a powerful discourse of diversion… taking the attention away from… grim realities of neo-liberal imperialism.” Clearly, research into the tabloidization  of television news indicates that broadcast has already moved toward a more tabloid model of news dissemination. This leaves room, however, for research to shift from establishing the presence of a tabloidization  of television news toward the possibility of a tabloidization  of online news sites, as statistics show that the Internet is an increasingly popular source for news consumption in the United States. Within the late-capitalistic environment of private industry, the need for profits seems to be eclipsing the traditional functions of the media. Documented instances of tabloidization in the most frequently used form of information dissemination begs further consideration of the possible consequences that this infotainment style of journalism and news reporting may have on American culture.

Methodology

This study employs the method of qualitative content analysis to seek out evidence to support the main research question: Are the top three traditional online news sites shifting toward a more tabloid model of information dissemination? Three traditional news organizations are the focus of this study: CNN, CBS News and ABC News. These sites have been chosen based on a combination of content, relevance and popularity as determined by the web filtering and categorizing reference site Net Top 20. Net Top 20 uses an algorithm that determines the leading websites for different subject categories and primarily uses hit-count trackers to determine the most popular sites within each subject. For the week of March 16, 2009 through March 20, 2009 (period of data collection), Net Top 20 determined CNN, CBS News and ABC News to be the leading Internet news sites based on their filtering technique.

The scope of this analysis ranges over the course of one full business week (five consecutive days). Within that time, data was collected on the top ten news stories appearing on each of the news sites home pages, totaling 30 stories per day to be analyzed and resulting in 150 stories (N=150). The stories were collected during the same time period each day, between the hours of 9am and 11am, in order to maintain consistency.

Once all of the stories were collected and captured using screen shot technology, each individual story was qualitatively analyzed based on the defined parameters of traditional and tabloid news. The primary coder employed a rating system for five categories:

Q1. Story topic
Q2. Layout and appearance
Q3. Use of photographs and illustrations
Q4. Writing style
Q5. Evidence of objectivity and validity

Within each of these categories, a Likert-type scale was used to assign each category for each story a number between ‘1’ and ‘5,’ with ‘1’ as adhering to strictly traditional news standards, ‘3’ as neutral and ‘5’ as tabloid presentation. Once all of the stories were coded, the data was run through SPSS to reveal whether or not CNN, CBS News and ABC News have moved toward a tabloidization  of their websites based on the quantitative results, with the initial assumption that newspapers and news websites begin as ‘1’s.’ This study serves to provide data-based evidence of whether or not the tabloidization  process is transcending the pages of print paper and the programs of public affairs television into the newest realm of information dissemination—the Internet. If analysis of the data shows that there is tabloidization  occurring on the top three news websites on the Internet, this could stimulate deeper investigation into how the future of news will appear to the public and the possible social and cultural affects of tabloid-style infiltration into traditional news organizations’ online information dissemination.

Although this study uses the primary researcher as the sole coder, a reliability check was run to determine coder accuracy. An external individual was given one article randomly selected from each website for each day that data was collected, resulting in a total external code of fifteen articles (N = 15). The external coder was given instruction as to the qualifications for each of the five questions, and was then asked to independently code each article based on the information given. After all coding was complete, data from each of the externally coded articles was matched up to the primary coders results by article ID and subsequently compared to determine correlation level. After the test was run, Chronbach’s Alpha returned at .893, with reliability qualification at Chronbach’s Alpha>.70. Thus results from the sample inter-coder reliability check deem the coding as reliable.

Data and Results

After collecting and coding the 150 articles, results were run through a series of tests using SPSS to test a series of hypotheses. The traditional method for analyzing results of a content analysis requires the use of a chi-square test because of the categorical and frequency data that is usually produced. Because of the employment of a Likert-type rating system to quantify the content of websites that generated continuous data, this logically leads to comparative and one-way ANOVA methods. The data-set was first run through a series of one-way ANOVA tests. Table 1 summarizes the mean and standard deviation of the numerical rating for each question on each website.


Table 1 – Descriptive Statistics for One-way ANOVA

For each question both between group and within group comparisons were run using one-way ANOVA, with the following results:

Table 2 – Between Group and Within Group Comparisons using One-way ANOVA

The next test run was a post-hoc analysis using Scheffe test, which compares the results for individual questions between the three websites in order to determine resulting similarities and differences.

Table 3-7 – Post-hoc Analysis using Scheffe Test Comparing Individual Questions for Each Website

Results for Q1 (story topic) show similarity between CNN and ABC News mean responses. Both Q2 (layout and appearance) and Q3 (use of photographs and illustrations) indicate a mean response similarity between CNN and CBS News, though Q4 (writing style) and Q5 (evidence of objectivity and validity) only show difference between CBS News and ABC News. These statistical results indicate that CNN and CBS News have the greatest level of similarity in terms of individual question ratings, suggesting that both websites may employ similar strategies in regards to the established parameters of each question.

A series of one-sample t-tests were performed, and the means of each question for each website were tested individually against the value ‘3,’ based on the coding scale assigning ‘3’ as a neutral assessment.

table 8 –  CNN one sample test against value 3
Q1: Mean = 3.46,     t(49) = 2.51,         P = .016
Q2: Mean = 3.36,    t(49) = 3.01,         P = .004
Q3: Mean = 2.68,     t(49) = -2.27,         P = .028
Q4: Mean = 3.74,     t(49) = 6.14,         P = .000
Q5: Mean = 3.74,     t(49) = 5.31,         P = .000

table 9 – ABC one sample test against value 3
Q1: Mean = 3.62,     t(49) = 3.39,         P = .001
Q2: Mean = 3.86,     t(49) = 11.4,         P = .000
Q3: Mean = 3.22,     t(49) = 1.50,         P = .140
Q4: Mean = 4.04,     t(49) = 7.58,         P = .000
Q5: Mean = 3.98,     t(49) = 7.40,         P = .000

table 10 – CBS one sample test against value 3
Q1: Mean = 2.24,     t(49) = -4.90,        P = .000
Q2: Mean = 3.04,     t(49) = .322,         P = .749
Q3: Mean = 2.34,     t(49) = -5.22,         P = .000
Q4: Mean = 3.36,     t(49) = 2.48,         P = .017
Q5: Mean = 3.36,     t(49) = 2.64,         P = .011

All but two results are significant. For each question the mean indicates the average of all responses for that website. Table 8 indicates that CNN has demonstrated a significant tabloidization  in all question categories accept for Q3 (use of photographs and illustrations), which mean is below the neutral ‘3’ thus remaining more traditional.  Table 9 shows similar results for ABC News. In all categories accept for Q3, the statistics indicate that a significant tabloidization  has occurred. Though Q3 cannot be deemed significant because P>.05, the mean response is 3.22, suggesting an average response above the neutral ‘3’ therefore leaning toward the side of tabloidization . Table 10 shows somewhat different results for CBS News than ABC News and CNN. For Q4 and Q5, the means are significantly greater than neutral ‘3,’ indicating the occurrence of tabloidization  for both categories. Q1 and Q3 show means significantly less than neutral ‘3,’ confirming that, for those categories, tabloidization  has not occurred. Q2 is not significant as indicated by P>.05.

For the third type of analysis, the questions were broken into two groups based on two distinct categories: questions dealing with content (Q1, Q4 and Q5) and questions dealing with appearance (Q2 and Q3). For Q1, Q4 and Q5, Cronbach’s Alpha = .792, indicating the reliability between the responses for these three questions in all three websites is significant. Cronbach’s Alpha>.70 shows a tabloidization  of content for all three websites. The same reliability check was run for Q2 and Q3, though results did not show significant correlation. This suggests that the visual and dynamic elements of websites (including video advertisements) may have influenced the accuracy of coding and must be taken into account for future studies of website appearance.

Discussion

Based on the subsequent statistical results, it is evident that the top three traditional online news sites are generally demonstrating a more tabloid model of information dissemination. The first question of the Likert-scale sought to determine the traditional or tabloid nature of each news stories topic. Both CNN and ABC News showed means significantly higher that ‘3,’ indicating the topics of news stories generally displayed elements of tabloidization . CBS News, however, showed a mean significantly less than ‘3,’ meaning that CBS News most often covered stories of traditional nature.

The second question sought to determine level of traditional or tabloid style in layout and appearance. In this instance, all three websites resulted in mean scores over ‘3,’ with CBS News as the closest to neutral followed closely by CNN and finally ABC News, with a mean suggesting a significant degree of tabloidization .  The results of question three, which determined the use of photographs and illustrations, indicate that both CNN and CBS News employ traditional methods of image use on their websites, but results for ABC News show that a tabloidization  has occurred.

The fourth question asks for the websites to be ranked based on the style of writing used in each article. The means indicate that all three websites are moving toward a more tabloid style of writing, with CBS News (once again) as the closest to neutral, followed by CNN and finally ABC News with a mean score representing significant tabloidization . Like questions one and four, question five sought to look at the written content of each website to determine whether or not evidence of objectivity and validity exist in each story.  For this question, CBS News remains closest to neutral followed by CNN and finally ABC News, with results that again indicate the presence of tabloidization . According to these results, CBS News is the closest to a traditional website, followed by CNN and finally ABC News, which continuously demonstrated means indicating the occurrence of significant tabloidization .

Limitations and Suggestions for Future Study

Because of the temporal nature of this study, the primary researcher was limited to a small sample of articles to code. Future studies should include a greater time span in order to track not only the occurrence but also the rate of tabloidization  occurring. It would be beneficial to use the template of this content analysis and apply it to a yearlong data collection period, wherein degrees of tabloidization  could be tracked over time to reveal the pace of the tabloidization  process.

Other limitations include the possibility of different perspectives on the qualification of both traditional and tabloid news. Although this study uses existing literature to support the manner of determining whether or not specific elements of a news website are presented as either traditional or tabloid, there is a possibility that both terms could be defined with different characteristics, affecting the numerical assignment of certain elements of each article.  For the purposes of this study, a reliability check was run to determine coding accuracy.

The result of this content analysis provides the opportunity to engage in further research regarding the relationship between the Internet and information dissemination. It would be beneficial to examine the content of less-corporate backed news organizations (for example, the Christian Science Monitor) online, to reveal whether or not a correlation exists in the occurrence of tabloidization , or to determine the infiltration of the tabloidization  trend in websites with less media visibility.  Furthermore, a tabloidization study of online news organizations that includes both a newspaper with an online model (for example, The New York Times) and an online-only news provider (for example, The Weekend City Press Review) would offer a useful comparison to the data on the tabloidization of television news websites reveled in this study. It would also be valuable to conduct a survey designed to target the degree of recognition and understanding individuals from different demographics (age, income level, education level) hold in terms of the manner that news is presented via the Internet. Having already determined that the top three traditional news websites are trending toward tabloidization , researchers can use this information to compare the perception of different audiences to the evidence that supports the existence of tabloidization .

Implications and Conclusion

With numerical evidence that supports the occurrence of a tabloidization  of online news websites, it is necessary to examine how the transformation from in-depth, hard news coverage to sensationalized infotainment may potentially affect US Internet news consumers. The Internet is the most popular form of information dissemination, beating out newspapers and television news by a wide margin. With competition from entertainment and celebrity blog websites flooding the countless options presented to individuals accessing information online, it seems that traditional news websites are adapting to the preferences of their audiences in order to retain consumers. This is a significant challenge facing news outlets online: the freedom and agency of the individual Internet user. As the traditional functions of media become secondary to the driving need for profits within the late-capitalist environment of private industry, it is integral to consider the possible consequences that instances of documented tabloidization  may eventually have on American culture.

Media theorists commonly examine the infiltration of entertainment into media outlets as a competitive strategy to vie for the public’s attention. As previously cited, Wright (1968) commented on the entertainment element of the five principals of the functional approach; that the media must entertain to serve as a source of respite for the consumer that may tire of the surveillance and correlation aspects of the media. Yet it seems, based on the finding in this study, that the entertainment aspect of the media’s functional role within society is becoming more and more prominent. The substitution for entertainment-as-news via tabloid print newspapers like the National Enquirer or the Weekly World News, and evening news programs such as Inside Edition and Entertainment Tonight, is now identified and quantified in three leading, traditional news outlets websites: CNN, ABS News and CBS News.

Postman (1984) warns of the possible consequences of trends of tabloidization : “When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when… people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, the a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility.” Postman’s critique holds relevance in attempts to understand and define the current state of news in America and the possibilities of what the future may hold if traditional news outlets continue the trend of tabloidization . How can citizens protect themselves from ‘culture-death’ in a media environment saturated with entertainment at the core of its output? A scarce list of solutions exist, but not without sacrifice. For individuals immersed in a media-saturated environment, it is difficult to imagine resisting the temptation to turn to the Internet and read the latest celebrity gossip on PerezHilton.com before briefly scanning the top stories of CNN.com, but such patterns of activity are the source of the diminishing credibility and trend of tabloidization  of so-called traditional news outlets. The competition to retain audience’s attention is undoubtedly fierce, especially when consumers hold agency over the direction of their focus when ‘surfing’ the Internet. The most important – and, perhaps, most effective – strategy to combat the possibility of ‘culture-death’ is education. By becoming and remaining aware of the catalysts that drive media trends such as tabloidization  of traditional news outlets, citizens will be empowered to recognize and consider the implications of the media’s actions in the face of changing media environments.

 


 

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