AR – Conceptualizing Sources

S. Shyam Sundar and Clifford Nass review in this article the concept of “source,” proposing a new typology to be used – especially in research dealing with online contents. Their concept of the source, and their proposed typology is based a.) on ontological rationale, and b.) on the fact that different types of source were found to affect the perception of content – so, the same content is perceived differently if attributed to different types of sources.

The suggested typology is as follows:

  • source as the visible gatekeeper – presenter
  • source as the media technology that delivers content
  • source as the receiver choosing content
  • source as others – some audience – choosing content

This is different to the conceptualization that I outlined in my research. And I have formulated some reserves about this typology, so let’s go through all the proposed types.

(I’m again a bit concerned that, given the article dates back to 2001, pretty much everything I cover here has already been discussed by experts of the topic. But what the hell, this blog is to document my own learning process.)

1.) Source as the visible gatekeeper – presenter
Sundar and Nass stress that the gatekeeper is NOT the actual source (as origin of information), but it is perceived as such. So they point out that journalists are in an ambiguous position; they – or their publishing organs – will be regarded as sources, but they (might) also have their sources: the people they interview, for example.

Point taken; but even with that reserve stated, it is telling that after all even Sundar and Nass give in to considering the “visible gatekeepers” or presenters as one type of source. (I felt somewhat that it would be easy to dig a bit deeper in here, distinguishing between editors, journalists and presenters – and also it would be quite interesting. I guess there must be studies about this, how much the editorial process or the presenter’s individual voice affects content perception (and what about the “single-authored” Economist etc.)) So far, so good.

2.) Source as the media tech that delivers content
This is where I’m slighlty uncertain what Sundar and Nass mean (and in case I’m right, I have serious doubts about the relevance of this concept). They claim that “computer terminals” can also select messages, and, referring to previous studies that prove that humans apply social rules also when interacting with computers, thus consider computer terminals as one potential set of sources. But they don’t explain explicitly how computer terminals are supposed to select content; they only hint at that this could actually be seen as some kind of random selection – or at least selection based on other criteria than content. I’m not sure which IRL situation they had in mind when they were thinking of this.

3.) Source as receiver choosing content
This refers to the personalization and filtering of messages. The authors explain why online selection and filtering is qualitatively different to offline choosing-what-to-read-or-watch: because online, selection happens in what they call a contextual vacuum:

Unlike in traditional news, [users] are not given clear clues about the relative importance of certain news stories over others, by way of story size, placement prominence etc. In the extreme case of a news consumer who gets all his or her news from the Net, this relative deficiency of external cues by professional gatekeepers could lead to the consumption of only those news items pertaining to his or her narrow set of interest areas, and the user may remain largely ignorant of current-day social and political events.

…which might not be true today, eight years later, when visualization technologies abound on the net too; or at least I certainly think it is not true to the same extent as it used to be – but this chimes nicely together with, and offers support to, Sunstein‘s theories about the dangers of overfiltering.

4.) Source as others – some audience – choosing content

Well this is just the gist of social news sites – and this is why the empirical findings of Sundar and Nass are, I think, especially interesting for me.

They set up an experiment in which groups of people were asked to rate various articles supposedly from different types of sources – of course, the articles were always the same, and thus the effect of source attribution could be measured. This is the long and short of it:

Other users seems to be the psychological favourite with the receivers […]. When other users or audience members are perceived to be the source of online news, the stories are liked more and perceived to be higher in quality than when news editors or receivers themselves are perceived as the source.

In addition, other audience members are seen to be better in choosing more representative, more important articles than professional editors, and extremely interestingly, when the – supposedly RANDOMLY SELECTING – computer terminal is perceived as the source, the news stories are rated HIGHER in quality than when pro editors or the users themselves are seen as gatekeepers.


Sundar and Nass warn that the more important thing is that the type of source does affect the perception of content – precisely in what ways, that might have to be researched more. However they try to give some potential explanations for the eyebrow-raising results.

For example, stories “picked by others” might have been rated higher in quality than “self-picked” or “editor-picked” ones, because the readers could have had low expectations towards the audiences, and high expectations towards what they themselves, or professionals pick – when they are shown average quality articles, these will be higher in quality than what’s expected from others, and lower than what’s expected from the self or pros.

The idea that readers possibly processed the articles not systematically but heuristically should also be considered – given that the offered articles were of low involvement for the readers, they might have rated them using simple cues and quick decision rules – such as the “bandwagon heuristic” (can’t be bad if others think it’s good), or the “computer heuristic” (if a machine chose a story, it must be truly random and hence representative of the news).

Anyhow, I think the authors are right when being cautious and saying that

[t]he directions of perceptions recorded in this study are less important than the overall theoretical implication that at least a portion of the variance in source effects in online communications is attributable to sources other than programmers of content

– especially since in real life, the perception of the sources is – I strongly suspect – much more complicated than in the lab experiment described in the article. What I mean is that articles can be conceptualized, and more importantly, also will be seen as having multiple sources (again, this is especially important for my social news sites).

So either knowledge, or at least the assumptions, about users’ source awareness (what they consider to be a source and what are the consequences of that consideration) should be explicitly formulated and included in research about, well, sources.

S. Shyam Sundar, Clifford Nass: Conceptualizing Sources in Online News. Journal of Communication, March 2001. International Communication Association.

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One Response to AR – Conceptualizing Sources

  1. Luigi G. says:

    What about the experiment of putting the same product in a pepsi or coke can?

    Different taste of course. But same theory ;)

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