The End of the Traditional Gatekeeper

Abstract

This study identifies salient issues of news outlets and conducts rank order correlations between the agenda of traditional media offline and the agenda of the ‘most popular’ articles (MPAs) from news outlets online from January 29 to February 19, 2010. Findings indicate that the agenda is mostly homogenous across news outlets off and online. Given the way of measuring articles’ popularity, however, the rank order of salient issues differs from the ‘most emailed’ articles to the ‘most read’ ones in news outlets online. Indeed, entertaining news, dealing with sports, arts, culture or entertainment, was more clicked and, thus, salient in the ‘most read’ articles than the ‘most emailed’ ones. On the contrary, informative news including health, technology, or living information was more frequently emailed than entertainment news was. Where salient issues in MPAs are analyzed more in detail, there is also a tendency toward issues unrelated to public affairs when compared to traditional media. The result of this study provides some insights into the potential role of MPAs feature in news and information flows. Although online audiences are likely to be exposed to the media agenda shaped by traditional gatekeepers in general, a unique news feature online—MPAs—has the potential to lessen the power of the gatekeepers in intermedia agenda-setting and facilitate the distinctive pattern of news selections based on the popularity among the audiences.

The End of the Traditional Gatekeeper?
The Role of the Most Popular Articles in the Flow of News on the Web

The mass media have considered a portrayal of the society due to its function in disseminating news and information that allow their audiences to survey and interpret the social environment (Lippmann, 1922; McCombs & Shaw, 1972; Neuman, Just, & Crigler, 1992). Indeed, mainstream news media—such as The New York Times and The Washington Post—have succeeded in making the issue agenda selected by gatekeepers salient and important not only to the public—agenda-setting effects (McCombs & Shaw, 1972; McCombs, 2004)—but also to other news outlets—an intermedia agenda-setting process (McCombs, 1997; McCombs & Shaw, 1993). The convergence of news agendas has also been applied in examining the process of agenda-setting among web-based media and its effects on the homogeneity of news agenda on the web (Lim, 2006; Lee 2007). However, this is not the case anymore. With the explosive growth in Internet connections worldwide, people are now finding their own ways to news online. It is carrying a vast array of news services and information resources and helping its users make sense of their social environment. Thus, the growth of the online news medium can lead to the change in the function of traditional gatekeepers and the pattern of news consumption and its effects (Bennett & Iyengar, 2008; Bruns, 2003; Knobloch, Sharma, Hansen, & Alter, 2005; Thorson, 2008). In particular, it has been held by some that the prevalence of digital media use may weaken the role of traditional newspapers in the transfer of agendas from the media to the public and across news outlets (Althaus & Tewksbury, 2002; Sunstein, 2001). This is because new communication technologies allow information providers to avoid media gatekeepers and enable audiences to gain control over communications (Bennett & Iyengar, 2008; Chaffee & Metzger, 2001). Therefore, online communicative activities have become the focus of many scholars’ attention in describing how digital media technologies allow individuals to acquire the common agenda of public affairs in society, and as a result, exert an influence on their political competence that contributes to social consensus (Althaus & Tewksbury, 2002; Lee, 2007; Lim; 2006; Tewksbury, 2003).

When it comes to new communication technologies, several authors (Knobloch et al., 2005; Thorson, 2008) have highlighted the importance of user-based recommendations of news online. Particularly, the ‘most popular’ articles (MPAs) list makes online communication distinct from traditional news flow and brings about a different pattern of news consumption. Based on the interactive nature on the web, news stories online can be selected and emphasized by a different system of filtering and gatekeeping from traditional media. Traditionally, the news editors and reporters have provided information and indicated a story’s relative salience in dimensions of attention and prominence in the news media (Graber, 1984; Lim, 2010; Thorson, 2008). However, online news media allows their audience to observe MPAs which are derived from the number of times a news item clicked or emailed by other readers in any recent time span (Knobloch et al., 2005). This feature is now generally provided by most online news media including traditional newspapers’ online counterparts, news aggregators, and blogs. More importantly, many online news media carrying the news recommendation systems display their popular news articles in a distinctive and prominent manner. Knobloch et al. (2005) suggest that online news consumers were likely to be attracted to articles with such a popular feature. Thus, the potential of MPAs feature conveys an important issue in political communication scholarship. Specifically, the prevalence of such a new communication technology utilized in news services allows for an alternative model as to the convergence of issue saliency among the news media due to the intervention of online users in the flow of news online. However, few studies have examined the dynamics of issue convergence within the interactive systems on the web. Certainly, this is partly a function of the difficulty in ascertaining the media agenda given the number of news outlets and formats represented online.

Investigating MPAs on the web-based media makes it possible for us to look at issue saliency online in two ways. Particularly, MPAs feature reflects not only the salience of issues frequently selected by online news readers but also the prominence of issues distinctivly presented to online readers. First, MPAs represent a a ranked list of issues selected by news consumers as to the attention level; therefore, it shows what issues are most consumed on the web. Moreover, MPAs imply that important issues are presented on the websites in a noticeable way, which makes such issues salient to their audience. In that sense, web-based news outlets can employ MPAs feature to demonstrate their issue agenda. Thus, the present study examines whether the effects of traditional intermedia agenda-setting apply to the context of online communication by defining news websites’ MPAs as dependent variables. Furthermore, this study investigates whether issues derived from MPAs are homogeneous across the news media on the web. In doing so, this study will explore the potential of news websites as a major platform for relaying agenda to online audiences between traditional and new media and across web-based media.


Literature Review

Since Lippmann’s (1922) famous theory, which emphasizes the role of the mass media in linking real world events and the pictures of these events in people’s minds, a number of communication scholars have verified that the mass media is successful in telling its readers what to think about (Cohen, 1963; Lippmann, 1922; McCombs & Shaw, 1972; Neuman et al., 1992). However, the changes brought by the web may have a profound impact on the function of news media and its effects. This is because, due to new communication technologies, news consumers online are allowed to have a different pattern of news exposure and consumption different from what they are allowed in traditional media. Blumler and Kavanagh (1999) point out, “the presumption of mass exposure to relatively uniform political content, which has underpinned each of the three leading paradigms of political effects—agenda-setting, the spiral of silence, and the cultivation hypothesis—can no longer be taken for granted” (p. 221-222). Consequently, it is plausible that the growth of online media has strong impacts on political effects of traditional media, such as newspapers, when it comes to agenda-setting effects. Therefore, in order to examine agenda-setting effects online, it is necessary to look at how the agenda is shaped on the web.


Gatekeeping in the Context of Online Communication

Since the concept of ‘gatekeeping’ was first introduced by Lewin (1947), who described news as flowing in a channel controlled by several gatekeepers, gatekeeping theories have described the way in which news selection is made in a variety of media and by a variety of different partakers, from editors to reporters. However, the traditional gatekeeping model may not be applicable to intermedia agenda-setting research anymore in the online environment. In the online environment, news readers are able to bypass traditional gatekeepers who are considered influential as to their role in shaping the media agenda. Rather, they are able to seek information in meeting their own interests while ignoring the intermediary processors of news (Paterson, 2005). Hence, the function of gatekeeping “has shifted from the decision about what should be produced to control of what materials get to consumers and of what material they become aware” (Hargittai, 2004, p. 5). Furthermore, online communication affords to make issues salient to news readers, which are distinctively generated or selected by its users as well as traditional gatekeepers. Therefore, communication studies on digital media use and its effects need to take into account the significance of online content to which readers are easily exposed from what is just presented on the web (Hargittai, 2004).


Online News Consumption and its Effects

The rise of online news outlets, initially seen as little more than an information archive on the web, is now implicated in gatekeeping and agenda-setting on the flow of news because of their technological features (Althaus & Tewksbury, 2002; Knobloch et al., 2005; Lee, 2007; Lim, 2010; Tewksbury, 2003; Tewksbury & Althaus, 2000). Particularly, traditional features of issue importance do not work on the web because of the charateristics in which most online media present their articles in a different way (Tewksbury & Althaus, 2000). For example, the length of an article, an important factor of determining news selection (McCombs & Mauro, 1977) is not presented on web pages because most online news outlets demonstrate headlines, including hyperlinks, in which readers may access the original article page by clicking the hyperlinks (Knobloch et al., 2005). Thanks to the hyperlinks, news readers can take advantage of unlimited space in cyberspace so that they can gain their own news and information in which they are interested (Dimitrova, Connolly-Ahern, Williams, Kaid, & Reid, 2003). Given the function of gatekeepers in deciding whether or not a certain story is presented to the public, the new technology—hyperlinks—has the potential to result in the change in the scope and dimensions of traditional gatekeeping. Traditional gatekeepers have played an exclusive role in selecting and emphasizing news messages (Shoemaker, Eichholz, Kim, & Wrigley, 2001). However, the use of hyperlinks and their popularity on the web paves the way for users to engage in the process of gatekeeping because of interactivity online. Indeed, the application of hyperlinks in the Internet news environment enables audience interest and feedback to apply to the process of gatekeeping (Li, 1998). In view of this, Singer (2001) indicates that online newspapers may not play the traditional function of gatekeeping insofar as the hyperlinks direct their readers to the AP newswire website. Li (1998) argues further that the balance of power is shifted from the news sender to the news receiver. Such an interactive feature of the Internet can be characterized by many-to-many interactivity because the Internet allows ‘many’ people to speak to ‘many’ others (Shapiro, 1999). Considering the many-to-many interactivity, the growth of news outlets online and the popularity of new communication technologies have the potential to bring about changes in traditional communication theories: gatekeeping and agenda-setting. This is largely because the Internet enables its users to engage in creating content and shaping is format as active participants rather than passive recipients (Shapiro, 1999).


The ‘Most Popular’ Function as a New Communication Technology

Online news media have come to tailor themselves and their messages to highly particularistic tastes; for example, you can navigate the day’s most read articles by other readers on the website (Katz, 2000). Given the Web’s interactivity, Sundar and Nass (2001) propose that individual users are considered a source of communication as well as news editors. This ‘self as source’ conceptualization implies that online users perform the gatekeeping function by themselves. MPAs list, one of the unique features online based on interactivity, carries important cues indicating media content which allow news readers to make sense of what others like or consume the most. More importantly, the MPAs feature has potential involvement in the effect of ‘third-party endorsement’ that implies a public expression of approval of news and information (Hallahan, 1999; Thorson, 2008). In an attempt to examine the effect of the most-emailed stories list on patterns of news consumption, Thorson (2008) demonstrates that MPAs list is not just a mirror of the day’s top issues cued by editors; but rather, it serves as a distinctive navigational tool for online news readers to consume news due to its endorsement effect. Furthermore, the results suggest that MPAs list may play an important role in allowing online users to be exposed to different issues with different prominence from the content shaped and cued by traditional editors (Thorson, 2008). Following cues on common selections is also attributable to a bandwagon effect with a popular trend, which produces greater attraction (Sundar & Nass, 2001). In an attempt to examine the influence of popularity indications online, for instance, Knobloch et al. (2005) note that implicit recommendations (e.g., times viewed) have a significant impact on audiences’ news consumption. However, few studies have taken into consideration the role of MPAs lists in gatekeeping and shaping the media agenda online. Given the potential of popularity indiciations, therefore, the purpose of this study stems from the question of whether inter-media agenda-setting applies to online news outlets and their news services that provide news stories to users in a different way from traditional media.


Intermedia Agenda-setting

Since the initial McCombs and Shaw (1972) study addressed agenda-setting effects, the process of inter-media agenda-setting has been frequently examined and confirmed by looking at the convergence of issue agendas among different news media (McCombs, 1997; McCombs & Shaw, 1993). Specifically, a number of studies have provided evidence for the significant role of inter-media agenda-setting in shaping the media agenda at both aggregate and individual levels (Protess & McCombs, 1991; Reese & Danielian, 1989; Roberts & McCombs, 1994; Whitney & Becker, 1982). Meanwhile, the rapid growth and prevalence of online news outlets have increased the need for looking at inter-media agenda-setting effects in the online news environment (Lim, 2006; Lee, 2007; Roberts, Wanta, & Dzwo, 2002). In doing so, agenda-setting researchers have consistently suggested a correlation between agendas from traditional and online media (Lim, 2006; Lee, 2007; Lee, Lancendorfer, & Lee, 2005; Roberts et al., 2002). Particularly, the process and effects of inter-media agenda-setting online have been well documented through investigating the transfer of the issue agenda from the mainstream media to the electronic bulletin boards on the Internet (Lee et al., 2005; Roberts et al., 2002), from the elite online newspapers to the online wire service (Lim, 2006), across online newspapers (Lim, 2010), and between mainstream media and blogs (Lee, 2007).


Research Questions

Previous scholarship on inter-media agenda-setting suggests an enduring influence of traditional media on the Internet (Lee et al., 2005; Lim, 2006; Roberts et al., 2002). In view of this, the key question of this study is to examine whether inter-media agenda-setting effects apply to the transfer of elite newspapers’ agenda to the agenda of MPAs in the web-based media on the web. As discussed above, the stability of the homogeneous agenda between the media agenda and the agenda of political blogs and across online news outlets has been consistently confirmed (Sweetser, Golan, & Wanta, 2008; Lee, 2007; Lim, 2010). By contrast, past research on audience fragmentation has shed light on the potential of new communication technologies, which lead to the loss of a common agenda and the rise of niche and specialized communications (Chaffee & Metzger, 2001; Katz, 1996; Sunstein, 2001; Tewksbury, 2003). Therefore, the present study attempts to analyze whether or not inter-media agenda-setting applies to online communication across Web-based media in terms of MPAs. To do so, this study investigates whether or not salient issues are homogeneous between traditional and new media and across news outlets or services online at both individual and aggregate media outlets levels. To sum up, the present study puts forth the following research questions to explore the role of new communication technologies in agenda-setting and news consumption.

RQ1: Is the agenda in MPAs lists online correlated with the agenda in traditional news?
RQ2: Is the agenda in MPAs lists online homogeneous across news outlets and services?


Method Data

In order to verify the agendas among news outlets, this study chose two leading newspapers – The New York Times and The Washington Post – and six news outlets online – nytimes.com, washingtonpost.com, The Huffington Post, Drudge Report, Yahoo! News, and Google News. As for the traditional media agenda offline, a great influence of the two nationally circulated newspapers on shaping agendas of other national or regional news media has been well documented (McCombs, Einsiedel, & Weaver, 1991; Reese & Danielian, 1989). Thus, the media agenda identified from the samples can represent the overall media agenda offline. In examining the media agenda offline, this study employed news articles on front pages for newspapers in order to gather a sample of articles to code (Wanta & Hu, 1993; Zhu, 1992). Using the LexisNexis database service, all stories from the front pages of the two newspapers were gathered based on keyword searches – “section A and pg.1” for The New York Times and “pg. A01” for The Washington Post. The sample stories were drawn in a three-week period from January 29 to February 19, 2010 (except Sundays). The sampling procedure for the media issues offline generated 247 stories during the time period: specifically, the number of stories drawn from the newspapers was 132 and 115 for The New York Times and The Washington Post, respectively.

When it comes to the media agenda on MPAs online, the six news outlets online were chosen to determine the rank order of issues involved in shaping the agenda online. Considering the frequent update systems of online news stories (McMillan, 2000), the sample was collected daily at noon (EST) each day (except Sundays) from January 29 to February 19, 2010 (a total of 19 days). Generally, MPAs lists constantly displays the most emailed, read, and commented articles of the last 24 hours (Thorson, 2008). Concerning the 24-hour news cycle of major news outlets online, a firm sampling interval during a certain time frame was expected to capture the nature of the news cycle on MPAs lists (Lim, 2010). As for a time frame, the three consecutive week sampling was set to examine how MPAs were involved in shaping salient issues over time in response to traditional news outlets’ coverage or other online media. Subsequently, the present study selected major news websites which offer MPAs feature as the context unit, and chose eight MPAs lists from the six websites: the most emailed articles lists from nytimes.com, washingtonpost.com, and Yahoo! News, the most read articles lists from Washington-post.com, Yahoo! News, Google News, and Drudge Report, and the most commented articles list from The Huffington Post. Then, top ten MPAs were drawn from each of the eight lists online as the coding unit. The sampled MPAs consisted of straight news, feature, news analysis, and other related stories. Stories including issues were the unit of analysis. Based on the sampling procedure, this study identified and collected 1,520 separate articles – 10 stories during 19 days from eight lists – from MPAs lists online during the research period.

All the news websites of interest present several types of MPAs lists based on the way of measuring ‘popularity,’ such as the most emailed, the most read, or the most commented articles list. Additionally, to examine the impact of different news services and ways of measuring ‘popularity’ on the issue saliency on the lists, the ‘most read’ articles lists on washingtonpost.com and Yahoo! News were also taken into account to compare each one with the most emailed articles list on both sites. The sampled news outlets online were comprised of three types of news sources online whose importance has been taken into consideration in determining the issue saliency online: the online editions of The New York Times and The Washington Post (Dimitrova et al., 2003; Thorson, 2008; Lim, 2010; Roberts, Wanta, & Dzwo, 2002), Yahoo! News and Google News (Pew, 2008; Hargittai, 2004; Paterson, 2005), and The Huffington Post and Drudge Report (Lee, 2007; Sweetser, Golan, & Wanta, 2008; Wallsten, 2007). MPAs lists on nytimes.com and washingtonpost.com were extracted from http://www.nytimes.com/gst/ mostemailed.html and http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/most-popular.html?hpid= hcmodule, respectively , and the lists were also featured on the front pages on each website. Both portal sites provided MPAs feature and their lists were drawn from http://news.yahoo.com /most-popular for Yahoo! News and http://news.google.com/news/section?pz=1&cf=all&topic =po&ict=ln for Google News. The weblogs’ MPAs lists can be found on their main homepages: http://www.huffingtonpost.com and http:www. drudgereport.com, respectively.


Measurement

Based on the assumption in which the agenda is a prioritized list of issues or topics that news media covers, each agenda in both news outlets off and online was measured by rank ordering the number of same topical stories containing issue agendas, which were salient at the attention level (Sweetser et al., 2008; Lim, 2006, 2010). In an effort to identify the agenda based on issue categorization and measurement, two trained coders identified 30 issue agenda by reading each story from the sample, based on the previous research (Lim, 2006; Whitney & Bercker, 1982). The 30 individual issue categories consist of a single issue or a set of issues. For example, the foreign affairs issue included stories about international news in general whereas the Haiti earthquake issue involved only stories about the earthquake in Haiti and related news (see Tables 1 and 2 for the 30 individual issue categories). For the intercoder reliability test, two experienced coders were given a selected sample of observations and coded them as a check against each other’s coding results. Out of a total of 1,767 observations, 218 cases (12%) were randomly selected for the intercoder reliability test. Considering a standard reliability measure for coding data, Krippendorf’s alpha (Hayes & Krippendorf, 2007) is employed in this study. Two coders agreed on 188 cases in coding the issue of each story into the issue categories, generating a .85 reliability coefficient ((The present study calculated Krippendorff’s Alpha. Krippendorff’s Alpha is expressed by ), “where is the observed disagreement among values assigned to units of analysis and is the disagreement one would expect when the coding of units is attributable to chance rather than to the properties of these units (Krippendorff, 2011).)). This reliability falls into the acceptable level of reliability that is usually figured by most standards of content analysis (Riffe, Lacy, & Fico, 1998).

As demonstrated previously, the sampled articles were coded into the issue categories so as to identify the issue agendas from both news outlets off and online. By doing so, issue categories were ranked, respectively, in terms of how many times they were talked about in each news article. This study employed a definition of an agenda as a ranked list of issues based on the frequency of news articles (McCombs & Shaw, 1972). Following previous agenda-setting research employing rank-order correlations of issue agendas (Lee, 2007; Lim, 2006; Roberts, Wanta, & Dzwo, 2002), the present study conducted a series of rank-order correlation analyses to examine whether the agenda of traditional media is associated with the agenda in MPAs online at both individual and aggregate (media-related) levels. The rank-order correlation analysis was also applied in evaluating homogeneity of agendas in MPAs across web-based media. In this manner, the present study calculated the correlation coefficients between the ranks of the 12 issue agendas by Spearman’s rho.


Results

The results of this study consist of two sets of findings. First, to identify the issue agendas, a descriptive analysis is presented to examine how many times an issue was talked about in different news outlets. Second, an analysis of Spearman’s rho correlation is conducted to measure associations between issue agendas in different news outlets.


Descriptive Analysis

The issues analyzed were mentioned a total of 1,761 times in the total sample stories in traditional media offline and in MPAs of news outlets online during the time period from January 29, 2010 to February 19, 2010. The numbers of issue agendas talked about were 247 in elite newspapers and 1514 on MPAs lists online. When it comes to the issue saliency, the issues about Politics and Government, Financial Crisis, and War on Terror were the most salient. The frequency percentage of each issue mentioned in the front pages of the newspapers offline was 9.3 percent, 8.9 percent, and 8.5 percent, respectively, of the total sample in newspapers offline. As for the issue agendas of MPAs online, the issue of Arts, Culture & Entertainment emerged as the second highest-ranked agenda, following the issue of Politics and Government. The issue, Politics and Government, accounted for 15.3 percent of a total of 1520 sample articles and the percentage of the Arts, Culture & Entertainment issue was 8.2 percent at the aggregate level of MPAs online. Table 1 demonstrates which issues and how each news outlet mentioned these issues in media both off and online. It therefore indicates patterns of coverage and online news consumption during the period. The percentage of each issue category and its rank are listed. As shown in Table 1, whereas the Financial Crisis issue was somewhat salient in traditional media and their online counterparts’ MPAs, the same issue was not as prominent among MPAs in blogs and online portals. Given Health & Nutrition and Technology & Science, these two issues appeared salient in the ‘most emailed’ lists from both traditional newspapers’ online counterparts. Additionally, Health & Nutrition was the most salient issue in the ‘most emailed’ articles from Yahoo! News (11.1 percent). Also, the most salient issue in the ‘most emailed’ articles from nytimes.com was Style & Living (15.3 percent) whereas the issue was rarely covered in the sample articles from The New York Times.

(Table 1 about here)

Table 2 presents the rank orders of the issue agendas in both aggregate newspapers and MPAs online. It also indicates several patterns of news consumption based on the differences in types of news sources and ways of measuring ‘popularity’ on the web. The most frequent issue for both aggregate media off and online was politics and government , making up 9.3 percent in aggregate newspapers and 15.3 percent online. The three major issues, Politics & Government, Financial Crisis, and War on Terror accounted for 26.7 percent of the total of observed issues offline. As for aggregate MPAs online, Politics & Government, Arts, Culture & Entertainment, and Health & Nutrition were the three major issues, comprising 29.7 percent online. The differences in salient issues between off and online indicate that issues unrelated to public affairs are more salient on MPAs online when compared to newspapers offline. Interestingly, the issue saliency varied dependent on whether or not MPAs were ranked and listed by measuring the frequency of a news article emailed or clicked (read). In particular, Sports and Arts, Culture & Entertainment were relatively more salient in aggregate ‘most read’ (clicked) articles online than aggregate ‘most emailed’ ones. These two issues made up 14.2 percent of the total sample on the ‘most read’ articles, despite 6.9 percent of the sample of the ‘most emailed’ articles. On the other hand, Health & Nutrition, Technology & Science, and Style & Living issues were more salient in the aggregate ‘most emailed’ articles than the ‘most read’ ones. These issues accounted for 29.1 percent of the ‘most emailed’ articles while making up 9.1 percent on the ‘most read’ ones. The discrepancy suggests that the issue saliency on MPAs online may differ contingent on the ways of measuring ‘popularity.’ It also has an implication for the type of information and the pattern of news consumption in which online users employ the function of news services online in a different way. Indeed, entertaining news, dealing with Sports and Arts, Culture & Entertainment, was more clicked and, thus, salient in the ‘most read’ articles than the ‘most emailed’ ones. On the contrary, informative news including health, technology, or living information was more frequently emailed than entertainment news.

(Table 2 about here)


Analysis of Rank Order Correlation

Table 3 demonstrates the correlations between two newspapers and eight MPAs lists online. As expected, the traditional newspapers offline are significantly correlated to one another (Spearman’s rho = +.64). Given the correlation coefficients between issue agendas off and online at an individual media level, all of the correlations are positive and 10 of the 16 comparisons are statistically significant. When compared to the correlation of traditional newspapers, especially, there are similar or a higher level of distinctive correlations between (1) The New York Times and the ‘most read’ articles from Yahoo! News (r = +.66); and (2) The Washington Post and the ‘most read’ articles from both washingtonpost.com and Yahoo! News (Spearman’s rho = +.80, +.63, respectively). However, the median value is +.50 for the 10 significant correlations and +.43 for all 16 correlations, which indicates just a moderate degree of correlation. Therefore, it is safe to conclude that, when applying the 30 issue categories, the issue agendas of MPAs online are just moderately associated with the agendas in traditional media at the individual media level.

(Table 3 about here)

Given the correlation coefficients among the eight MPAs lists from online media, 28 comparison tests were conducted at an individual media level. That is, the eight lists were individually compared with each other. All of the correlations are positive, and 22 of the 28 are significant. The most emailed and read articles from Yahoo! News show the strongest relationship of the agenda (Spearman’s rho = +.87). The 22 significant relationships have positive correlations ranging from +.37 to +.87. The median value is +.51 for the 22 significant correlations and +.44 for all 28 relationships. These findings thereby suggest that the agendas of MPAs online are just moderately correlated with each other. Also, it demonstrates the moderate degree of homogeneity of the issue agendas between off and online and across MPAs lists online at the individual media level. Furthermore, the agendas from MPAs online were compared with the agendas of the media offline at an aggregate media level. Table 4 presents the correlations of agendas between aggregate media off and online, and is positive and statistically significant (Spearman’s rho = +.57). In particular, The Washington Post agenda is more strongly associated with the aggregate MPAs agenda than The New York Times is. Additionally, the agendas of the ‘most read’ articles from washingtonpost.com and Yahoo! News are strongly correlated with the agenda of aggregate media offline (Spearman’s rho=+.73 for both).

When it comes to the type of news sources, both agendas from washingtonpost.com and Yahoo! News are significantly associated with the agenda of aggregate media offline (+.60, +.65, respectively). Also, the agenda of aggregate MPAs from Yahoo! News is significantly correlated with the agenda in The New York Times (Spearman’s rho = +.60). However, the agenda of MPAs from washingtonpost.com is not significantly associated with The New York Times agenda. Given the way of measuring ‘popularity,’ the aggregate ‘most read’ articles agenda shows generally a stronger relationship with the aggregate traditional media agenda (Spearman’s rho = +.72) than does the aggregate ‘most emailed’ articles agenda (Spearman’s rho = +.49). These significant correlations indicate that agendas of aggregate media offline and online are moderately correlated with one another, and the degree of correlation can vary based on the type of news sources and the way of measuring ‘popularity.’

(Table 4 about here)


Discussion

The key question of this study was whether MPAs online follow mostly the same agenda as traditional news media. Thus, an extensive analysis was conducted through 45 comparisons among the two traditional newspapers and the eight MPAs online for each level. Accordingly, the media correlation is +.51 for all the 33 statistically significant instances. It suggests that it is not sufficient to conclude that salient issues were homogeneous across newspapers and MPAs during the time period because only a moderate correlation between agendas of newspapers and MPAs was observed. Considering the characteristics of MPAs, the findings suggest a limited function of online news media in transmitting the agenda of traditional media to online audiences when compared to previous studies confirming the strong correlations of agenda between traditional media and online media (Lee, 2007; Lee et al., 2005). In this sense, the findings provide an insight into the rise and prevalence of MPAs that seem to have the potential to lessen the media’s monopoly on selecting, prioritizing and presenting particular news to the audience (Thorson, 2008).

A further analysis of correlations between aggregate media agendas suggests the interactivity of web-based news services that may lead to changes in the patterns of gatekeeping and news consumption. In a set of 12 comparisons between aggregate media agendas based on news services and formats, MPAs agendas of the ‘most read’ articles online are generally more highly correlated with the traditional media agendas than the ‘most emailed’ articles: The correlation is +.72 for the ‘most read’ articles and +.49 for the ‘most emailed’ ones. The finding has two implications related to gatekeeping and news selections. First, given the role of new communication technologies in gatekeeping, salient issues online may vary based on the way of measuring ‘popularity.’ In light of this, the media agenda online may be contingent on news media routines that apply an interactive feature of the Internet in selecting, prioritizing, and presenting news stories. Second, the result is also implicated in the pattern of news selections among online users who consume news in a different way based on the format. Indeed, while the agenda of the ‘most read’ news tend to follow the agenda of traditional media, the ‘most emailed’ news agenda is less similar to the traditional media agenda.

When comparing salient issues in traditional media with ones in MPAs online, issues unrelated to public affairs are likely to be more salient in MPAs online than traditional media offline. Specifically, non-political stories, such as issues about health, technology, arts, entertainment, and style, are more salient in MPAs online compared to traditional media. On the other hand, issues about the war on terror and the earthquake in Haiti are more salient in traditional media than MPAs online. The findings carry potentially important implications in terms of the pattern of news consumption online. When it comes to the impact of the Internet on individuals’ media use, the findings of the present study offer some support for several studies about patterns of news consumption online that suggest online users tend to consume news which is already of interest them and are less likely to follow the cues of traditional gatekeepers while exposing them to a relatively narrow range of public affairs coverage (Althaus & Tewksbury, 2002; Tewksbury, 2003; Tewksbury & Althaus, 2000) . Therefore, this study supports for the claim that new communication technologies might have the potential to bring about a segmentation of the public while undermining the notion of a larger public discourse (Althaus & Tewksbury, 2002; Chaffee & Metzger, 2001). Specifically, people who are cultivated within the culture of digital media follow the media agenda based on their predispositions such as political ideologies. By doing so, individuals’ use of digital media makes it possible for their news consumption to engage in shaping a different pattern of news flow online.

Moreover, salient issues in MPAs also differ contingent on the way of measuring ‘popularity.’ On the one hand, entertaining news dealing with sports, arts and entertainment is more clicked and, thus, salient in the ‘most read’ articles than the ‘most read’ ones. On the other hand, informative news including health, technology, or living information is more frequently emailed than entertaining news. Such a discrepancy could add new evidence for prior studies on the use of technology in the context of online communication and social networks (Boase et al., 2006; Thorson, 2008). In this manner, the findings suggest that online readers employ the function of news services online to share news and information with their social networks for advice (Boase et al., 2006). In particular, it can be possible for online users to use web-based news outlets with an entertaining purpose while seeking political information using traditional media. The findings thus shed light on a function of online news features, such as MPAs, in gatekeeping and agenda-setting due to distinctive patterns of shaping the agenda based on news consumers’ needs and interests. Additionally, where distinctive issues are presented through MPA lists on the front pages of web-based media based on the way of measuring ‘popularity,’ the role of web-based news services can be very significant because it makes different issues salient on the web from the traditional media agenda according to how online users consume news and information. These findings also carry important implications that coincide with the studies about new communication technologies (Althaus & Tewksbury, 2002; Katz, 1996; Neuman, 1991; Sunstein, 2001; Tewksbury, 2003), which point out the potential for the technologies to fragment news audiences and isolate them from the public discourse. In this sense, the findings of this study confirm that new media technologies facilitate greater individual control over communications and selecting news, and that this greater control helps shape a divergent agenda from the traditional media one.


Limitations and Suggestions for Future Research

This study is not free of limitations in terms of the research strategy and method. First, considering the cross-sectional nature of the data analyzed, this study does not take into consideration the optimal time lag for the traditional media agenda to have an influence on MPAs online. Although the time lag issue has been mainly applied in attempting to examine the public agenda, it can also play an important role in shaping MPAs agenda because online readers may be attracted to news coverage dealing with important issues to the public. Therefore, future research needs to establish time order and functional relationships in order to examine how traditional news media affect MPAs online.

Second, a relatively short time frame employed in this study can be problematic because it limits the ability to examine a long term effect that one medium has on the use of another medium. The present study analyzed the news coverage and MPAs online in a three-week period. However, Hester and Dougall (2007) suggest that at least five constructed weeks are needed to represent six months of MPAs on the web. As previously mentioned, the time frame was designed to better capture the interplay between web-based media in dealing with individual stories (Lim, 2010). Thus, future research should consider in more detail a time frame issue and employ the optimal time frame to capture an agenda in MPAs online and a real media effect.

Third, it is plausible that the sampled MPAs in this study may not be appropriate in portraying salient issues among online readers for two reasons. First, it is also possible that MPAs are just manipulated by the media online, as most news outlets do not specify the algorithms used in displaying MPAs lists on their front pages. Indeed, the data indicate that a substantial amount of articles remain on MPAs lists for multiple days because the lists are likely to encourage the public endorsement effect. If so, the effect of agenda-setting could be moderated by the bandwagon effect in which MPAs issues do not necessarily mean the most important ones for the public. A second reason is attributed to the sample data collected from a limited number of media outlets: two newspapers’ online editions, two online portals, and two blogs. Use of a limited number of media raises concerns about the generality of the findings. Therefore, future research may need to elaborate a research strategy to take such factors—algorithms and sample data—into account in analyzing the agenda in MPAs online.

Lastly, perhaps one of the most important limitations of this study is that it provides no explanation for the function of MPAs online in shaping the public agenda. The main argument of this study is that the rise of MPAs in web-based media works as a limiting force against the homogeneity of the media agenda across news outlets off and online so that the influence of traditional gatekeepers on agenda-setting is lessened in the online news environment. Although the evidence presented supports the potential force of MPAs given the limited effect of inter-media agenda-setting at the individual issues level, it provides no argument about the impact that MPAs online have on the public agenda. Though relatively high-ranked issues in MPAs were unrelated to public affairs, it does not necessarily lead to the public agenda based on news exposure. Therefore, future studies need to address this issue by exploring who is currently using MPAs online, including their use patterns and motivations, to what extent MPAs are involved in shaping the public agenda, and how MPAs services can be better analyzed in order to examine their differences in media effects.


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