SOURCE CUES IN ONLINE NEWS: Is THE PROXIMATE SOURCE MORE POWERFUL THAN DISTAL SOURCES?

Article excerpt

With the rise of intermediaries such as portals, social-bookmarking sites, and microblogs, online news is often carried through multiple sources. However, the perceived credibility of different source cues attached to a single news story can be quite different. So, how do readers evaluate the story? Do users factor in all distal sources, or do they simply refer to the proximate source delivering the news? Using a 2 (involvement) x 2 (proximal source credibility) x 2 (distal source credibility) full-factorial between-subjects experiment (N = 231), we found that while highly involved readers considered both types of sources, low-involvement readers were primarily influenced by the proximate source.

When individuals obtain news or public-affairs information, they prefer getting it from an identifiable source. Studies have long shown that individuals evaluate a message based on the credibility of its source.1 This works well in traditional mass media (e.g., the New York Times or CNN), which feature one salient source for a given message. In online news, however, the identity of the source can be quite murky because there are often multiple layers of sources.2 On the Internet, we obtain news information from a number of different venues, ranging from websites of news media (e.g., nbc.com) to social-bookmarking sites (e.g., digg.com), social-networking sites (e.g., Facebook), and microblogs (e.g., Twitter). The issue of multiple sources is particularly apparent in news portals,3 such as YahoolNews (http://news.yahoo.com), and news-aggregator sites, such as Google News (http://news.google.com), where each piece of news is accompanied by several source labels, often displayed together on the interface.

Given this chain of sources, an important consideration is the distance between particular sources and the readers. This distance would likely be perceived differently, depending on one's understanding of the delivery sequence of a news story. On the other hand, readers may not process all visible source labels when they evaluate online news. The source label is generally viewed as a peripheral cue by dual-process models in social psychology. Such cues are said to trigger heuristic processing in favor of the more cognitively effortful systematic processing, unless there is sufficient motivation or involvement in the message.4 Therefore, involvement, motivation, and ability of individuals could be associated with the degree of influence that proximate and distal sources have in our processing of online news. The study reported here offers an initial empirical examination of this possibility.

More specifically, the goal of this study is to determine which source cue is used by online users when they evaluate the credibility of information obtained from news portal sites such as Yahoo!News. Do users factor in distal sources in evaluating news stories? Or, do they base evaluations on the more proximate source, namely the portal site itself? We investigate these questions by examining the relative impact of a proximal source cue (specifically, a news portal site) and a distal source cue (a news media source), as a function of the reader's level of involvement with the news topic.

Literature Review

Source Attribution of Online News: Does Psychological Distance with Source Matter? Most traditional models of communication assume that a source is the sender of communication and suggest four key components of communication processes - source, message, channel, and receiver (SMCR).5 Given general conceptualization, it seems sufficient to simply present the information in order to be seen as a source by receivers. A news presenter, such as a TV anchorperson, can function as a gatekeeper and be perceived as a source. Because such professionals are often seen as selecting news and also directly interacting with their audiences, message receivers'often perceive them as news sources.

In the online domain, these gatekeepers appear in the form of news-aggregator sites, which are often run by bots or algorithms without human intervention, thus raising the question whether media technologies can also be regarded as sources. …