Are Online News Editors Devalued Despots?

Unlike traditional print media where a newspaper’s agenda can be inferred from a number of visual cues, online news is consumed in a virtual vacuum. Traditional methods of measuring journalistic objectivity and accuracy are of little use on the internet, where the source of the news is not only ambiguous, but often unidentifiable.

This not only has legal implications when it comes to identifying the source of defamatory or libelous content, but also is also of particular interest to online journalism when, as shown by S. Shyam Sundar and Clifford Nass’ 2001 article, “Conceptualizing Sources in Online News,” the same news story is rated differently when attributed to various sources of online news.

Interestingly, surveys have shown that news editors’ and audiences’ definitions of values like objectivity, credibility and accuracy are contradictory in print journalism. Despite these differences, when online news content was experimentally attributed to either a visible gatekeeping source or the self source, editors and audiences were psychologically similar in their ratings of liking, quality, credibility, and representativeness.

That editors and readers don’t always agree is no secret, but can and should the internet close the ontological gap between them?

According to the study, much of the source credibility literature focuses on visible sources because they have more of a psychological effect than the originator of the news – because visible sources act as filters of information while directly interacting with the audience, they psychologically displace the newsmakers quoted in a story as the source of news. Individuals become sources of news when they selectively choose content from a mass of competing content, in effect becoming their own gatekeepers. To lead participants in the self source condition to believe they themselves were the source of the news content, they chose one article from a list of headlines. All headlines were linked to the same article, mimicking the online environment in which individuals choose news content in a contextual vacuum.

Also, the stories rated highest were those chosen by other users. In other words, the most e-mailed or most blogged about stories on nytimes.com or the most recommended or linked-to stories on Facebook are not only the most popular, but also are perceived as the most credible, well-done, and representative.

Does this mean that, assuming more young people visit Facebook than nytimes.com, anyone with a Facebook profile is as reliable in their judgments of journalistic values as the editors of The New York Times? I hope not.

Despite the influx of ambiguously sourced and questionably credible web content, what is it about the culture of the internet that makes other users and readers more of an authority on a news story’s credibility than visible gatekeepers?

Is it that, in an internet democracy, editors and news anchors are viewed as out-of-touch despots, or has the around-the-clock culture of the internet devalued the practice of gatekeeping?

Many scholars have offered answers, but since being an online journalist essentially requires a phone with an internet connection, there may be no more gates to keep.