In conversation with undergraduate students, they have sometimes mentioned finding sources "on the Internet" as though the Internet were a giant monolith of invariably valid and reliable information. My answer to them has evolved over the years, but remains essentially the same: Information doesn’t just appear on the Internet, someone had to place it there.
Where does online content originate? This question has especially drawn the attention of traditional print and broadcast journalists and journalism scholars for some time (Robinson, 2011; Kovach & Rosensteil, 2010).
At the broadest, most basic, level, online content either originates with traditional journalists or it does not. Each category has a multitude of levels. Traditional journalism begins at the scholastic level—with high school and college newspapers, radio and television stations—and spans all the way to storied international journalism institutions such as The New York Times and The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).
The originating source of news content in the blogosphere has been a source of study for more than five years (Messner & DiStaso, 2008). To provide users with a sense of what was happening "in the blogosphere"—in the universe of blogs—some Web sites sprang up that called themselves "blog aggregators." Essentially, these aggregators used a series of methods to collect and present the information that was being most often cited, especially most often linked, on blogs around the Web.
In 2008, Technorati was among the most common blog aggregators (Messner & DiStaso, 2008). With that in mind, for a master’s thesis, I set out to examine the following question: Where do Technorati’s "Top 30" news articles (www.technorati.com/pop/news) originate? During a 29-day period in July-August 2008, I examined the originating source of news articles on this site (n=870) to answer the question. I used the top-level domain of each news article (www.topleveldomain.com) to determine its originating source.
A full 80% of articles (704 of 870) in this sample originated from either The New York Times (478) or the BBC (114) or The Washington Post (112). This strongly suggests Technorati’s "Top 30" news coverage, during the period studied, largely reflected the content of these three elite media outlets.
Every study carries limitations, and this one is no exception. It is obvious that the blogosphere has changed during the past four years, so this study may better serve as a baseline than as a current finding. In that spirit, using the 2008 data, foremost, Technorati is a particularly contentious online space. As an anonymous reviewer for the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication noted in response to an earlier version of my paper: "Unfortunately, as is well known to pretty well everyone working in this field, Technorati is broken. It has signally failed to keep control of spam blogs, and does an especially poor job of scraping non-English language sources." I admit and accept these shortcomings, but I nonetheless hope these findings spark further exploration of the news blogosphere.
Moreover, I recognize that Technorati privileges its "Top 100" blogs in the ranking process and relies heavily on the practice of news tagging. Accordingly, the blogs most fully represented in Technorati’s "Top 30" news coverage are those "Top 100" blogs that utilized news tags. Put simply, these findings are not necessarily representative of the Technorati community as a whole—and that limits what can be said about Technorati based on my findings. In addition to these major limitations, there are also two minor limitations to be considered.
First, the heavily-trafficked nature of the aggregator, in particular, would make it predictable that prominent, mainstream media outlets would receive the majority of links. Case studies (Yin, 2003; Stake, 1995) of blogs with varying levels of traffic would do well to measure the performance of The New York Times, Washington Post and The British Broadcasting Corporation vs. other mainstream and non-mainstream news outlets.
Second, the user-driven nature of Technorati raises questions about why users link to particular stories. One explanation for mainstream media dominance on Technorati may be that mainstream sources are arguably still more familiar than (or more trusted than) non-mainstream sources, given mainstream outlets' prevalence in the media environment at large. However, the dominance of the three outlets noted above suggests that mainstream status is not enough to explain the findings in this sample. Given Technorati's reliance on users' linking behavior in calculating their "Top 30" rankings, this area seems particularly ripe for future study.
In truth, I should have selected a site for study that was less hampered with problems. This event taught me to be especially mindful of the information landscape online. But the underlying lesson, not all Web sites are created equal, is as beneficial for teachers like me as it is for my students (Hargittai, 2009).
Students, as citizens in a global media environment, need to be especially critical of content posted online. Many aren’t. Information posted "on the Internet" spans a broad range of sources. Knowing those sources, and understanding where the information originates—as well as recognizing potential flaws associated with how the information was gathered in the first place—will help students and other citizens become especially mindful in their information gathering and searching processes. In the changing media environment, this skill will be crucial for the next generations around the country and the world.
- Peter Joseph Gloviczki is a media, information and communication researcher and a teacher, currently in the academic job market. While completing his doctorate, he taught undergraduate students in the classroom as well as in online environments. His Web site is http://petergloviczki.com.
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