Just as retail stores are often judged by the brand names they stock, online news portals tend to be judged by the sources of the articles they post. According to a new study by researchers at Penn State and published in Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, people who access news articles from credible sources through online portals such as Yahoo News or Google News tend to view the portals themselves as more credible.
According to researcher S. Shyam Sundar, online news portals, which are often little more than fancy delivery systems for stories that originated elsewhere, reap most of the benefits of news sites, including enhanced credibility and revenue generation, while assuming little of the risk. He points out that even when the news item turns out to lack credibility, the portal is rarely held liable.
The investigators exposed study participants to various online news articles and asked them to rate the credibility of both the online portals the articles were accessed through and the original sources of the articles. To prevent participants from rating the articles based upon the quality of the writing, the researchers presented the articles through what appeared to be two different online portals and attributed them to two different original sources.
For the purposes of the study, Google News was chosen as an example of a highly credible portal and the Drudge Report represented a low-credibility online portal. The New York Times served as a highly credible original source, while the National Enquirer acted as its low-credibility counterpart.
When participants read an article they believed was from a trusted source, they were more likely to rate the online portal they accessed it through as credible. When they read an article they thought came from a source that lacked credibility, they tended to view the portal as less credible. Unfortunately for sources that were perceived as having low credibility, reading an article on a trusted portal was unlikely to make the reader view the source more favorably.
In spite of these results, Sundar noted that readers rarely took note of original sources unless they became involved in the story. When articles failed to engage an individual participant, he or she was unlikely to make more than a cursory investigation into the source of the article and was more likely to make a quick judgment based solely on the perceived credibility of the online portal.
It has become more and more difficult for consumers of news to trace the sources of information. When a reader views an article in a print copy of the New York Times, it is very clear where the story came from and who is taking responsibility for its accuracy. When the same article is viewed online, however, the story may have been taken from the original source and channeled through an online portal, forwarded via email and then posted on Facebook. Sources may become murky and may disappear altogether along the way, according to Sundar.
“With traditional media it’s fairly clear who the source is,” he said. “But in online media, it gets very murky because there are so many sources.”