Impact of popularity indications on readers' selective exposure to online news.

Author:Knobloch-Westerwick, Silvia
Position:Explicit or implicit
 
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The Internet has greatly contributed to the so-called information tide (Graber, 1984) that news consumers face. Using the World Wide Web to access news has become commonplace, with nearly two thirds of the people who "get news" using online sources at least some of the time (Fallows, 2004). Thus, communication scholars need to address new phenomena in news consumption that are unique to information retrieval from the World Wide Web. Initial explorations into how news consumers perceive--print and online news have revealed that the audience applies largely parallel criteria to both outlets (Sundar, 1999). However, with regard to issue perceptions and learning from news, differences between print and online news did emerge. For example, Althaus and Tewksbury (2002) demonstrated reduced agenda-setting effects for online news readers compared to readers of the print news version. Furthermore, Eveland and Dunwoody (2002) showed that reading Web news produces smaller learning effects than print news. The authors of both studies attributed these differences to increased selectivity in online news consumption. Hence, the well-established phenomenon of selectivity in media consumption (Klapper, 1960) also seems relevant for online media. This highlights the importance of determining which factors influence selective exposure to online news.

Interestingly, online news platforms offer their users filtering techniques to access the abundant information selectively. Two broad classes of selection devices can be differentiated (Cosley, Lam, Albert, Konstan, & Riedl, 2003): content-based, in which the reader may enter keywords or section preferences to create customized newspaper versions (as in many so-called Daily Me projects in the 1990s); and collaborative filtering, in which previous readers' opinions on content are employed (see Lasica, 2002a, 2000b). The latter approach can be seen in various popular online portals from which many people retrieve news (e.g., Yahoo! News and Google News) and also in online versions of established news media (e.g., USAToday.com and CNN.com). Because news consumption is often considered important for surveying and interpreting the social environment (Lippmann, 1922; McCombs & Shaw, 1972; Neuman, Just, & Crigler, 1992; Noelle-Neumann, 1974, 1977), it is intriguing that online news platforms now incorporate collaborative filtering cues, such as most e-mailed, number of page views, and average (avg.) rating associated with specific articles. The social functions of news may be even more salient when cues of collaborative filtering are present and indicate what other news readers appreciate and consume.

It is plausible that user-based recommendations of news have strong impacts on selective exposure to news. Various possible impacts of this kind are investigated in this study. We will review differences of print and online news that are relevant in this context, address how online news platforms offer new features to "tame the information tide" (Graber, 1984), and state research questions for the subsequent empirical investigation.

News Selections in Traditional Versus Online News Presentations

News editors apply a relatively standardized set of criteria when selecting information for publication or broadcast in news outlets (e.g., Galtung & Ruge, 1965; Gans, 1979; White, 1950) and, furthermore, emphasize certain news reports by prominent presentation, for example, on the front page, with illustration, or as the first item in a newscast. For traditional news platforms, such formal indicators of newsworthiness have been demonstrated to guide information selections of news consumers (e.g., Garcia & Stark, 1991; Graber, 1984; McCombs & Mauro, 1977; Wolf & Grotta, 1985; Zillmann, Knobloch, & Yu, 2001) and also the level of importance attached to a reported issue (e.g., Kiosis, 2004; Wanta, 1988). Recently, though, more and more news consumers turn to the World Wide Web to retrieve information (e.g., Fallows, 2004), as it provides abundant and timely news coverage, mostly free of charge (Deuze, 2003).

It is entirely possible that the very same factors trigger information selection in both online and print news, although selecting might be more convenient in online settings and thus more important. In fact, studies by Zillmann et al. (2001) and Knobloch, Hastall, Zillmann, and Callison (2003) revealed that images in both print and online news attract news consumers in like fashion. Studies by Knobloch-Westerwick and collaborators (Knobloch, Dillman Carpentier, & Zillmann, 2003; Knobloch, Hastall, Grimmer, & Bruck, 2004; Knobloch, Patzig, & Hastall, 2002; Knobloch, Zillmann, Gibson, & Karrh, 2002; Knobloch-Westerwick, Dillman Carpentier, Blumhoff, & Nickel, 2005) investigated the personal utility of news content for online and print settings and found the same factors to trigger selective exposure to media content. However, all these studies focused on content features.

Yet many unique formalfeatures of online news displays are likely to promote different news selection behaviors. It has been noted that well-established, formal indicators of issue importance are no longer visible when news reports are retrieved online (e.g., Tewksbury & Althaus, 2000). By and large, online news outlets and portals list headlines that include hyperlinks to access the actual article. The length of an article, a strong determinant for selective reading of print news (e.g., McCombs & Mauro, 1977), cannot be previewed before clicking the hyperlink to access the article page for further scrutiny. Thus, the display on the entering page should have substantial impact on what online news consumers actually read and what they ignore. In addition, unlike in print newspapers, these headlines usually do not differ in terms of typeface size. Thumbnail-sized illustrations often accompany news headlines, but any emphasis is lost as most headlines carry such images (e.g., Google News). In brief, news consumers receive hardly any indication regarding which of the accessible news reports has greater importance in the view of the news editors.

Recommender Systems in Online News

Instead of using the indications that traditional media employ, many online news displays carry other importance cues for their reports. Due to the interactive nature of the World Wide Web, it is easy for online news site designers to include the current number of times a report has been viewed, which news items have been the most popular in any recent time span, or how readers explicitly rated a news item. In general, such "recommender systems" can be found on many Web and e-commerce sites (Cosley et al., 2003). Media products are especially likely to be evaluated using these systems, such as music at music.yahoo.com, books at amazon.com, and movies at imdb.com. A great variety of approaches can be used; for example, recommendations can be derived from explicit ratings based on evaluation scales or from implicit appreciation inferred from observed selections (Resnick, Iacovou, Sushak, Bergstrom, & Riedl, 1994). Furthermore, there are a number of evaluation scale formats, including "thumbs up/thumbs down," "one to five stars," or scales ranging from 1 to 100 (Cosley et al., 2003). More sophisticated collaborative filtering algorithms detect similar preference patterns among different users to predict the liking of content and thus provide individualized recommendations based on shared tastes. This approach was pioneered by the GroupLens system (e.g., Resnick et al., 1994) and first implemented for Usenet Newsgroups, where Usenet participants provide news items.

A basic, yet common version of such recommender systems can be found in many online news displays that indicate how many readers have viewed a report (implicit recommendations) or how these readers evaluated an article (explicit recommendations; see Claypool, Le, Waseda, & Brown, 2001). These indications of liking or importance assessments, based on audience behavior and judgment, are likely to influence news selections. It has often been argued and demonstrated that consumers of traditional news derive social perceptions from the news coverage (McCombs & Shaw, 1993), employing a so-called quasi-statistical sense (Noelle-Neumann, 1974, 1977). Mutz (1992) looked more specifically at portrayals of mass opinions in the media and contrasted such sources of "impersonal influence" from unknown others with personal influences. In her conceptualization, sheer numbers are often the basis of impersonal influence, whereas personal influence stems from trust in familiar others. Popularity indications of online news can be considered a source of impersonal influence. Now, given that the online news media offer immediate and seemingly objective numeric indicators on what news coverage other readers consume and appreciate, it appears likely that online news readers will orient their news consumption along these lines, as discussed in the following.

Theoretical Perspectives

At first glance, it seems logical that news consumers should simply follow the recommendations they encounter in online news outlets--essentially a bandwagon effect with a popular trend producing even greater attraction (Sundar & Nass, 2001). Chaiken (1987) argued that people use the heuristic that, if many think an opinion is valid, the opinion is probably correct. Accordingly, they could just follow the evaluations and choices made by others, thereby limiting their own cognitive selection efforts. Affiliation motives may be another reason for bandwagon effects, even when relating to strangers (e.g., Byrne, 1961). However, there are theoretical considerations that speak for alternatives to bandwagon effects. The following three approaches illustrate this for cognitive aspects, interindividual differences, and situational perceptions as intervening variables.

First, given that bandwagon effects may result from heuristic and cursory...

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