The Web of Context: Applying Network Theory to the Use of Hyperlinks in Journalism on the Web

Article excerpt

This study applies emerging network theory to the use of hyperlinks in journalism stories on the Web. A five-year data set, including almost 1,500 Web news stories, is examined. The study concludes that the use of links in Web news stories is increasing in ways predicted by network theory. Stories may become both more event-driven and more contextual on the flexible platform of the Web.

Recent research into the growth patterns of the Web has uncovered principles that help us understand networks of all types. Unlike many networks which evolve slowly and imperceptibly, the Web has exploded before our eyes. From a few hundred Web pages in the early 1990s to more than a billion a decade later, the intricately linked Web became a perfect natural experiment for the study of network growth. Contrary to an early hypothesis that much network structure occurs randomly, researchers discovered a predictable order in its evolution, one that applies to a wide and diverse range of network structures.1 The present study applies the lessons learned from the Web as a whole to a unique subset of the Web, journalism Web sites. Like the larger Web, stories on news Web sites are linked, both internally and externally. If the patterns of this linked network follow newly developed theories, predictions about the use of hyperlinks in Web news may be possible.

This study began preserving Web data in 1997 for future examination and attempts to answer two primary questions. First, do Web news stories follow the growth pattern typical of the Web as a whole? second, what types of stories are heavily linked? Contextual potential is offered as a predictor for the use of hyperlinks by Web journalists.

Context in News Stories

A typical news story's mix of new fact, old fact, assertion, and interpretation has changed over the last two centuries. From 1790 to 1980, Schudson found a "decline of 'facts'" and a corresponding increase in interpretation in reporting on the State of the Union address.2 Barnhurst and Mutz documented a century-long shift toward long journalism, long on interpretation and context, short on new fact.3 The role of technology in these changes has also been explored. Nerone and Barnhurst found a shift in newspaper design that resulted in fewer small individual news items.4 The effects of television on the content of newspaper stories have also been examined. Iyengar found print coverage of elections to be more contextually bound (or thematic) compared to television coverage that was more episodic.5 Over time, the decline of fact-driven reporting first seen in print revealed itself in television news, which also shifted to more analysis and speculation.6

Journalism scholars disagree on the proper use of contextual material in news stories. Barnhurtz and Mutz say the shift to long journalism is unfortunate for several reasons. Isolated events are ignored; interpretive journalism is often boring; and facts are replaced with opinion, abstraction, and "discouraging problems."7 Others disagree. A prominent journalism association recently concluded that, "Journalism's first obligation is to the truth. Democracy depends on citizens having reliable, accurate facts put in a meaningful context."8 In this view, facts alone aren't enough; a framework for interpretation is required. Some have concluded that more, not less, context is needed.9 Schudson appreciates both views. He was among the first to document the decline of facts in journalism amidst a shift toward what he called a culture of criticism. At the same time, he is wary of the media's "fetishism of the present" that reports events absent historical context.10

The technology of the Web allows news presentations that might satisfy both those wanting shorter fact-driven accounts and those wanting context, interpretation, and opinion. Take, for example, a CNN.com story that was posted to the Web at 8:58 a.m. on 23 March 2003 and headlined, "Iraqis Put Up Fight at Umm Qsar. …