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News Quality from the Recipients' Perspective

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Fierce competition on the Web, increased commercialization and a turbulent economic environment may prompt media organizations to violate journalistic quality norms in order to remain competitive. Media users or recipients are then more likely to be confronted with factually inaccurate, incomplete or biased news. One would hope that at least some recipients prefer high-quality media over low-quality media and this preference will counteract pressures on media organizations to downgrade their product. But this hope is based on the assumption that recipients can evaluate the quality of news appropriately. Communication scholars, however, typically argue that recipients are unable to judge media with regard to these normative quality criteria since they lack the appropriate background and professional knowledge to make such judgements. This study investigates how far this is true. A series of 2 × 2 factorial online experiments test whether recipients of news recognize the quality of news items measured by the criteria of diversity, relevance, ethics, impartiality, objectivity and comprehensibility. Results indicate that recipients do recognize differences in quality to some extent where they reflect issues of relevance, impartiality and diversity. But recipients found it hard to evaluate the ethics, objectivity and comprehensibility of a news item. Furthermore, media brand images proved to be an important heuristic when recipients have to evaluate news quality. The results show that it is difficult for recipients to judge news coverage with regard to identified normative quality criteria. However, the audience is by no means completely unable to identify a lack of quality in the news.
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News Quality from the Recipients'
Perspective
Juliane Urban & Wolfgang Schweiger
Published online: 08 Nov 2013.
To cite this article: Juliane Urban & Wolfgang Schweiger , Journalism Studies (2013): News Quality
from the Recipients' Perspective, Journalism Studies, DOI: 10.1080/1461670X.2013.856670
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/1461670X.2013.856670
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NEWS QUALITY FROM THE RECIPIENTS
PERSPECTIVE
Investigating recipientsability to judge the
normative quality of news
Juliane Urban and Wolfgang Schweiger
Fierce competition on the Web, increased commercialization and a turbulent economic environ-
ment may prompt media organizations to violate journalistic quality norms in order to remain
competitive. Media users or recipients are then more likely to be confronted with factually
inaccurate, incomplete or biased news. One would hope that at least some recipients prefer
high-quality media over low-quality media and this preference will counteract pressures on media
organizations to downgrade their product. But this hope is based on the assumption that
recipients can evaluate the quality of news appropriately. Communication scholars, however,
typically argue that recipients are unable to judge media with regard to these normative quality
criteria since they lack the appropriate background and professional knowledge to make such
judgements. This study investigates how far this is true. A series of 2 ×2 factorial online experi-
ments test whether recipients of news recognize the quality of news items measured by the criteria
of diversity, relevance, ethics, impartiality, objectivity and comprehensibility. Results indicate that
recipients do recognize differences in quality to some extent where they reflect issues of relevance,
impartiality and diversity. But recipients found it hard to evaluate the ethics, objectivity and
comprehensibility of a news item. Furthermore, media brand images proved to be an important
heuristic when recipients have to evaluate news quality. The results show that it is difficult for
recipients to judge news coverage with regard to identified normative quality criteria. However,
the audience is by no means completely unable to identify a lack of quality in the news.
KEYWORDS audience analysis; credibility; experiment; journalism; media brand image; news
quality; normative quality; user quality
Introduction
The worlds media is changing as fast as ever. In 2011 the amount of information
created and disseminated on the Web surpassed 1.8 zettabytes, a nine-fold increase from
2006 (Gantz and Reinsel 2011, 1). Likewise, the amount of news available on the internet
increased dramatically. For example, the Federation of German Newspaper Publishers
identified 658 newspaper websites in 2009. In 2002, there were only 400 such websites
(BDZV 2010). Next to these traditional media offers, there exist a myriad of portals,
corporate websites, weblogs, forums, social network sites and others where Web users can
catch up with the latest news.
However, the quality of these news services varies hugely, as now anyonemedia
professionals, companies, organizations, institutions as well as private media users can
distribute information. Basically, any kind of content can be put on a website as long as it
Journalism Studies, 2013
http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/1461670X.2013.856670
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is not obviously illegal. Even professional media websites, such as the news websites of
traditional newspapers or TV stations, do not publish only high-quality news. Severe cost
and time pressures, as well as staff shortages in online newsrooms, increase their
susceptibility to shallowness, inaccuracy or even mis-information (Salverria 2005; Craig
2011). Fierce competition on the Web as well as general changes in the media system,
such as concentration of media ownership for example, increasing commercialization and
economic difficulties of the media industry, may lead to a violation of journalistic quality
norms in order to remain competitive (Bogart 2000; Beck, Reineck, and Schubert 2010).
These developments have consequences. For media users, the chance of being
confronted with erroneous, incomplete or biased news on the internet but also in
traditional media increases. If media users do not receive unbiased, relevant, compre-
hensible and varied media information, they cannot act as well-informed, competent and
active citizens in a democracy. Now, one can argue that the sheer amount of news
available remedies the problem as recipients can get a fair overview of a topic by using
multiple sources. However, this argument is based on the assumption that recipients can
appropriately evaluate the quality of news regarding those normative(Meijer 2001;
Hasebrink 2011) quality criteria. There are plausible arguments why recipients may have
problems with evaluating the normative quality of news. First, normative news quality
criteria are abstract, complex, and thereby hard to understand for media users. Second,
even if recipients fully understand the criteria, they need background knowledge and
practical experience to judge news on these criteria (Erlei 1992). In sum, it is not clear
whether or not recipients are able to evaluate the actual normative quality of news.
Literature Review
Normative News Quality Criteria
Defining quality is a tricky task. It implies that the objective nature of an item has to
be valued as being suitable or unsuitable to satisfy certain claims. Hence, there is no
quality in an item itself, but only some kind of convention to interpret certain objective
indicators as high or low quality (Wallisch 1995). This is especially true for media products
such as news since what constitutes good news depends on the perspective from which it
is viewed. For example, journalists may judge news quality in relation to the amount of
research they carried out before writing it. By contrast, recipients may evaluate how much
they enjoyed reading an article.
As mentioned above, we are going to focus on the quality of news from a normative
perspective. From this perspective, news quality is defined by scientists (speaking on
behalf of recipients) as relating to the functions of news media in modern democratic
societies (McQuail 1992; Hagen 1995). Generally speaking, journalism mainly compensates
consequences of functional differentiation in societies. This differentiation results from the
loss of traditional roots as well as spatial and functional differentiation in politics,
economics and other societal sub-systems (Bekel, Moller, and Williams 2002, 2526). Thus,
journalism has to promote a greater understanding of the issues and problems facing
society(Hasebrink 2011, 324) and actively generate a common public sphere where
relevant issues are freely debated by political actors and citizens (Habermas 2006). The
foundation of this is the provision of adequate information for citizens about currently
relevant issues. Additionally, in democracies journalism is always part of the societal and
political system with certain values, norms and operating principles. Journalism has to
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accept, preserve and mediate those values (Arnold 2008, 496497). Thus, in terms of
societal values, journalism has to obey general law and principles as bases for a
prosperous human community. Those specifications are set in media law or codes of
conduct for journalists. In terms of political values, journalism has to maintain checks and
balances on the political process, and thereby increase the efficiency of government and
help to resolve social conflict by giving a multifaceted description of events(Jacobsson
and Jacobsson 2010). High-quality journalism tries to satisfy all of these tasks.
There are several catalogues of normative quality criteria (e.g. McQuail 1992). German
researchers especially have addressed the topic (Schatz and Schulz 1992; Poettker 2000;
Arnold 2009). A review of those catalogues results in six basic quality dimensions. Firstly, all
social groups and ideas should have the chance and expectation of being mentioned in
journalistic coverage (diversity). Second, news is expected to focus on actual and socially
relevant issues and to present the important aspects of those issues (relevance). Only if
information is complete and accurate can citizens understand societal problems, form
adequate opinions and make adequate decisions (accuracy). Fourth, even if information is
complete and correct it can only be useful if it is understood by recipients (comprehensib-
ility). To ensure citizensfree and competent opinion formation, journalism needs to
guarantee a neutral and balanced coverage of all facts, demands and positions (impartiality).
The compliance of ethical standards is the final quality dimension for news coverage.
Figure 1 summarizes the six quality dimensions and concrete quality criteria which
are frequently associated with these dimensions for single news items.
The assignment of some quality criteria to certain quality dimensions is only
analytical, which is illustrated by the dotted lines (as alternative paths of allocation).
FIGURE 1
Normative quality dimensions and criteria (based on own literature review)
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News Quality and Recipients
In research about media quality, recipientsquality evaluations are less appreciated
than quality evaluations by scientists, journalists or media experts. Scholars mostly argue
that the audience is unable to judge whether normative media quality is reliable because
they lack background information and journalistic knowledge (Erlei 1992; Beck, Reineck,
and Schubert 2010).
Studies which explicitly focus on news quality from the audiences perspective can
be divided into three groups. A first group investigates recipientsquality expectations to
deduce quality criteria (Bogart 2000; Pew Research 2012). These studies confirm that
recipientsnews quality expectations reflect the normative quality criteria mentioned
above, by and large. Audience members attach importance to a neutral and balanced
coverage (Willnat and Weaver 1998; Tsfati, Meyersand, and Peri 2006), and a great diversity
of opinions and comprehensibility (Gladney 1996; Dahinden, Kaminski, and Niederreuther
2004). Furthermore, many of these studies reveal that most media users have a limited
understanding of news quality (Lieske 2008). When openly asked what signals a good
newspaper, only a few recipients formulate sophisticated rationales (Arnold 2009;
Fiedler 2012).
A second group of studies investigates how far certain quality perceptions of
recipients influence their decision to select or use a certain media product. They can show
that recipients use news which they perceive as relevant, accurate, impartial and
comprehensible more often than news which they perceive as less relevant, accurate,
impartial or comprehensible (Wolling 2002; Emmer et al. 2011). So, on the one hand,
normative criteria are important criteria when it comes to evaluating news. On the other
hand, they are important criteria for the selection of news as well.
A third group of studies investigates recipientsquality evaluations of specific media
channels or products (Newhagen and Nass 1989; Abdulla et al. 2002). These studies
suggest that recipients are able to determine the normative quality of news coverage to a
certain degree. For example, quality media are usually rated higher than tabloid media by
people who use both media types at least occasionally (Zubayr and Geese 2009). However,
like the first two groups these studies help little to find out about recipientsability to
judge the quality of a single news item.
Firstly, the level of analysis in these studies is quite broad. Most of them ask for
recipientsevaluations of whole media brands like the New York Times or whole media
genres like newspapers or news websites. Hence, the results cannot say much about
recipientsconcrete evaluations of different news items. They rather express an aggregate
opinion over a variety of articles, sections and editions. It remains unclear which part of
the coverage was judged. An example from radio research should illustrate that point.
Eberhard (1962, 236239) and Kliment (1996) found that German radio listeners evaluate
the quality of radio channels according to the music played. In both studies, the news
quality had no impact on the overall quality judgement. Schoenbach and Goertz (1995)
even found that music judgement directly affects news service judgement. Thus, it is
problematic to infer from recipientsgeneral channel evaluation their judgements of radio
news services.
Second, recipientsquality evaluations of media products were virtually never
directly compared to the scholarly defined and content-analytically measured quality of
those media. Consequently, we cannot say whether recipientsevaluations are appropriate
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or not because we do not know the actual strengths and weaknesses of the media objects
under evaluation.
Third, there are several other factors which may influence audiences quality
judgements, such as attitudes towards a media brand, personal media experiences or
media routines (Lee 2010; Tsfati 2010). Only a few studies control these factors:
1. In a survey, Rager (1993) confronted participants with three news articles and asked them
to rank them with regard to quality. At the same time, the normative quality of the articles
was content-analysed. Only 25 per cent of his participants ranked the articles in the same
order as the content analysis.
2. In a 2 ×2 experimental design, Trepte, Reinecke, and Behr (2008) presented participants
with identical articles which only differed in terms of media type (newspaper versus blog)
and ethical quality (ethical neutral versus ethical questionable). Here, most participants
recognized the ethically questionable version and rated it significantly lower for quality.
3. Jungnickel (2011) chose a similar approach to Rager. Applying quantitative content
analysis, she identified newspaper articles with very high and very low quality across seven
quality dimensions (diversity, relevance, accuracy, impartiality, transparency, lawfulness
and comprehensibility). Then she confronted participants in a 2 ×2 online experiment with
either a high-quality or a low-quality article on a political or sports topic. Results illustrated
that recipients realized some of the quality differences (diversity, impartiality and
comprehensibility). However, differences in transparency and ethics were not recognized.
All three studies applied anonymous news sources. Therefore, they cannot draw
conclusions about how media brand images may influence the quality judgement of
single news articles. This gap is filled by the present study.
What is meant by media brand image? Consumers ascribe a persona or an image to
the brand based on subjective perceptions of a set of associations that they have about
the brand(Nandan 2005, 264). So media brand image describes the overall personal
attitude towards a media title. Following social-psychology, this attitude consists of several
cognitive and affective perceptions (Zajonc and Markus 1982; Bagozzi and Burnkrant
1985).
1
Cognitive perceptions include recipientsperceived general credibility of the brand
(Hovland, Janis, and Kelley 1982) as well as quality perceptions (Burgoon, Burgoon, and
Buller 1986), ideas on gratifications that can be obtained (Lichtenstein and Rosenfeld
1984), and so on. Affective perceptions refer to the emotional affinity or feelings towards a
medium. This includes concepts like sympathy, acceptance or popularity. Taken together,
all these factors constitute the image recipients have of a media brand.
The literature hints at the fact that media brand image influences the quality
evaluation of single news items. Above all, credibility studies reveal image transfers from
the source of informationeither the author or the mediumto the information given.
Media users assess credibility of a brand they do not know based on their knowledge of a
similar brand they do have familiarity with (Johnson and Fahmy 2006). For example,
recipients judge news sites associated with established and credible news organizations as
more credible than all other types of news sites on the internet (Flanagin and Metzger
2000; Fineberg and Stone 2002). Attitude change is more likely to happen if the source of
information is perceived as trustworthy and competent (Benoit and Strathman 2004;
Chung, Fink, and Kaplowitz 2008). Furthermore, loyalty to, or liking of a source, promotes
attitude change. For example, several studies found that liking an advertising medium can
positively influence attitudes towards TV spots (Schumann 1986; Murry, Lastovicka, and
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Singh 1992) and banner advertisements (100world.media 2000). Lastly, support for the
influence of media brand image on the quality evaluation of single news items can be
found in a study by Slater and Rouner (1996). The authors revealed that (besides message
characteristics) media brand expertise assessment moderately influences the perception of
writing style of an article stated in that brand. So it is plausible to assume media brand
image influences the quality evaluation of single news items.
However, the impact of a brands image in the evaluation process might depend on
recipientsability to recognize quality differences in news items. This is suggested by dual
process theories of attitude formation. Both the Elaboration Likelihood Model (Petty and
Cacioppo 1986) and the Heuristic Systematic Model of information processing (Chen and
Chaiken 1999) forecast a more peripheral attitude-formation if recipients are not able or
not willing to evaluate information properly.
2
Thus, the ability to recognize article quality
can influence if a quality judgement is formed on a central (systematic) route or a
peripheral (heuristic) route. If recipients recognize the actual quality of a news item, their
quality evaluation will be mainly based on this knowledge. The media brand image should
be less effective. By contrast, if recipients are unable to formulate adequate quality
judgements they might draw heavily on their attitudes towards a media brand as
heuristics to evaluate the quality of the news article.
In sum, news quality research dealing with audience evaluations of normative quality
dimensions is fragmentary and inconsistent. There is some evidence that (1) the factual
normative quality of news articles (as measured in a content analysis), (2) the recipients
personal evaluations of those articles, and (3) their image of a media brand are inter-
connected. However, the degree of correlation is unclear. The studies neither analyse the
combined influence of actual normative quality and usersattitudes towards a media brand,
nor do they systematically investigate how far recipientsevaluation abilities vary between
quality dimensions. The relevance of this second aspect becomes evident when we recall
why news coverage has to fulfil the six normative quality dimensions mentioned here. Only
diverse, relevant, accurate, comprehensible, impartial and ethical news coverage enables
individuals to act as responsible citizens and voters in a democratic society. If one of these
requirements is violated, such behaviour is not at all or only partly possible. In this sense, if
recipients want to make an informed judgement, they have to recognize specific
shortcomings in terms of all six quality dimensions. If, and only if, they are then able to
decide whether they have to search for further information on an issue.
Research Questions
The present paper investigates recipientsability to appropriately judge news quality
referring to different normative quality dimensions. So the main research questions are:
RQ1: Do recipients recognize normative quality differences in single news items?
As mentioned above, recipientsperceived media brand image seems to have an impact on
recipientsquality evaluations of an article published in this brand:
RQ2: How does the perceived media brand image influence recipientsquality
evaluation of a news article in this medium?
Based on the theoretical considerations and empirical observations mentioned above, we
can formulate the following hypotheses:
H1: The more positive the perceived media brand image, the more positively
recipients evaluate the normative quality of a news item from this brand.
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H2: The less able recipients are to recognize quality differences in single news
items, the more important the perceived media brand image becomes in the evaluation
process.
Method
To investigate the research questions and hypotheses, a series of six between-
groups 2 ×2 factorial online experiments was designed. Each experiment focused on one
of the six quality dimensions shown in Figure 1.
Design
For each experiment, researchers took one good-quality political article on a
contemporary topic and manipulated it in two ways. As the first factor, one of the six
quality dimensions was manipulated resulting in a (1) high- and (2) low-quality version. As
we assumed the media brand influences the individual process of quality evaluation, the
media title was manipulated as a second factor. Version 1 presented the logo of the well-
respected, high-circulation German quality daily newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung. Version
2 applied the logo of the biggest tabloid paper in Germany, Bild-Zeitung, known for its
sensationalist coverage, frequent exposés of peoples personal lives and vicious campaigns
against politicians who have fallen out of favour.
3
The news article and page layout were
changed to resemble each of the publications. Participants were randomly assigned to
read one of the four versions of the news article. They were told that the article had
actually appeared in a newspaper within the past week.
The variation of quality dimensions was based on the associated quality criteria from
Figure 1.Table 1 illustrates the manipulations. In the impartiality-experiment, for example,
the high-quality article presented a well-balanced selection of sources and viewpoints and
was neutrally written, whereas the poor-quality article was unbalanced and written
judgmentally. The other five quality dimensions were kept constant. The same procedure
applied to the other quality dimensions/experiments except for ethics. Here, the criteria
are too different to be varied in a single article (see Figure 1). So we decided to focus on
the prohibition of discrimination in the ethics-experiment. This was because quality
variations with regard to this aspect were recognized most frequently in a pretest with N=
31 media students.
All articles in the experiments were based on actual media stories. All resembled
actual news topics and were of equal length. They were written by the first author of this
paper and reviewed by a professional journalist. A quantitative content analysis of all
articles, which served as a manipulation check, was conducted by trained media students.
Procedure
The experimental study was conducted as a series of six two-wave online
questionnaires. In the beginning of the first questionnaire, participants answered some
questions on their general media use. These questions permit an easy entry to the survey
and help analyse whether regular media consumption improves quality evaluation skills of
recipients. Next, participants were exposed to one of the articles whichdepending on
the experimental group the participant was assigned towere of either low or high
quality and either branded as Bild-Zeitung or Sueddeutsche Zeitung.
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TABLE 1
Variation of quality dimensions in six experiments
Quality criteria High-quality version Low-quality version
Experiment 1: Diversity (topic of article: Scholarship programme for talented students)
Number of different
viewpoints reported
Five Two
Number of different actors Three actors cited One actor cited
Experiment 2: Relevance (topic of article: Unrests in Southern
Sudan)
Completeness Complete information: What
happened? Where? When? Who
was involved?
Fragmentary information:
What happened? When?
Who was involved?
Analytical quality Information on causes,
consequences, evaluations and
claims of/from the event were
provided
Information on
consequences and
evaluations of/from the event
were provided
Up-to-dateness Article date one day after the
event
Article date one week after
the event
Experiment 3: Accuracy (topic of article: Scholarship programme for talented students)
Correctness No contradictions or errors in the
article
Two contradictions or errors
in the article
Transparency of author and
sources (name, function,
circumstances of quote)
High Low
Precision of quantitative
information
Exact quantitative data, if those
are required
Vague or no quantitative
data, if those are required
Experiment 4: Comprehensibility (topic of article: Unrests in Southern Sudan)
Simplicity Easy terms, simple phrasing Difficult terms, complex
phrasing
Formal order Clear formal structure, paragraphs
and subheadings
No recognizable formal
structure, no paragraphs or
subheadings
Coherence Logical sequence of information
with explicit interconnections
Random sequence of
information without
interconnections
Conciseness Precise text without unimportant
information, short sentences
Imprecise text with a lot of
unimportant information,
long, convoluted sentences
Additional stimuli Use of some direct quotations and
figures of speech to create a
diversified text
No use of direct quotations
and figures of speech to
create a boring text
Experiment 5: Impartiality (topic of article: Raising retirement age in Germany)
Balanced viewpoints Yes No
Balanced actors Yes No
Neutrality: Does the author
refrain from personally
evaluating the reported
situation
Yes, no explicit or implicit
evaluation
No, explicit evaluation given
Experiment 6: Ethics (topic of article: Raising retirement age in Germany)
No discrimination No discrimination of older
employees, neutral phrasing
Discrimination of older
employees by use of
stereotypes and derogatory
phrasing
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The article was presented without any further instructions, so recipients were free to
decide how to read the article. The time participants spent reading the article (reception
time) was automatically recorded through the survey software. After reading the article,
participants were asked to give an overall quality evaluation on the article as well as to
judge the article with regard to the six quality dimensions. The overall quality evaluation
was measured on a five-point scale from very badto very good. The evaluation of the
six quality dimensions followed Trepte, Reinecke, and Behr (2008) and Jungnickel (2011).
Every quality criterion from Figure 1 was transferred into a statement which participants
had to evaluate on a five-point scale from do not agree at allto agree entirely.
In the follow-up survey one week later, data on the perceived brand image of both
newspapers was collected with the help of a five-point semantic differential. The image
was measured by 14 items (inspired by Merbold and Johanssen 1977; Hovland, Janis, and
Kelley 1982; Burgoon, Burgoon, and Buller 1986; Ridder and Engel 2010) referring to the
general credibility (competentincompetent,trustworthyuntrustworthy), the gen-
eral quality of coverage (diversenot diverse,contains relevant informationcontains
irrelevant information,unbiasedbiased,ethically inoffensiveethically offensive,
contains accurate informationcontains inaccurate information,transparentnot
transparent,comprehensibleincomprehensible) as well as brand sympathy (I likeI
dont like,pleasantunpleasant) and acceptance (indispensabledispensable,close
to menot close to me,recommendablenot recommendable).
4
Sample
All experiments were carried out simultaneously between 23 January and 15 February
2012 in Germany. The basic population were German onliners (individuals who use the
internet at least sometimes) between 18 and 65 years of age. Participants were recruited
from a representative online panel with the help of a professional panel provider. For each
experiment, independent samples were chosen via quota sampling (age, gender,
education).
Quotation was successful despite a slight over-representation of higher-educated
individuals. In each experiment, between N= 520 and N= 537 participants took part. The
response rate was about 33 per cent per experiment. For the present analysis we excluded
all participants who read the article for fewer than 10 seconds, as a pretest showed that
participants who read the article for a shorter time were not able to even capture the basic
content and had thereby no chance of recognizing quality variations. In consequence, the
sample size narrowed to between N= 365 and N= 427 per experiment.
A between-group randomization check referring to general media use and the
image of both newspapers was performed at the outset of the analysis. It revealed
successful randomization with no between-group differences in all six experiments.
Results
RQ1 asked if recipients recognize normative quality differences in news articles. We
compared the ratings of all quality criteria for participants who read the high-quality
version to the ratings by those who read the low-quality version. This means we only focus
on the quality criteria analysed in the respective experiment. Table 2 illustrates the results,
including overall ratings of the six quality dimensions as mean indexes of the single items.
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The first remarkable result is that participants ranked all high-quality versions higher
with regard to the relevant quality dimensions than the corresponding low-quality
versions. On the item-level, 12 out of 18 group differences were significant. The same
applies to all six overall ratings (index variables) which means that the audience seems to
recognize all normative quality dimensions in a similar fashion. This is true at least if there
are significant quality differentials, as was the case in all six experiments.
When taking a closer look at particular quality criteria we can find some notable
differences between them. Participants are quick to identify instances when the causes of
or claims resulting from an event are not reported. They also notice when there is no
TABLE 2
Quality dimensions and recipientsquality evaluations
Item Low quality High quality Difference
Diversity (N= 154) (N= 206)
Many opinions were considered. 2.7 3.2 +0.42***
Many actors were considered. 3.0 3.3 +0.30**
Overall diversity rating 2.9 3.2 +0.35***
Relevance (N= 193) (N= 177)
It becomes clear who says/did what when and
where with regard to the event.
3.3 3.7 +0.40***
Causes of the event are named. 2.7 3.9 +1.24***
Claims resulting from the event are named. 2.6 3.3 +0.76***
The article is up-to-date. 3.5 3.5 +0.02
Overall relevance rating 3.2 3.6 +0.38***
Accuracy (N= 192) (N= 172)
The article does not contain erroneous facts or
contradictions.
2.4 2.6 +0.20
All mentioned persons or institutions could be
clearly identified.
3.4 3.5 +0.09
The circumstances under which the persons or
institutions made their statements became clear.
3.1 3.2 +0.13
The author of the article can be recognized. 2.9 3.6 +0.77***
The article contains sufficiently precise amounts,
dates and numbers.
3.2 3.5 +0.32**
Overall accuracy rating 3.3 3.5 +0.28***
Comprehensibility (N= 141) (N= 160)
For me personally, the article is comprehensible. 3.4 3.7 +0.34**
Overall comprehensibility rating 3.4 3.7 +0.34**
Impartiality (N= 179) (N= 169)
Different opinions are covered in equal depth. 3.1 3.5 +0.37**
Everybody who has something to say on the
events is covered in equal depth.
2.9 3.2 +0.29*
The article is neutrally written, meaning the
journalist does not give his own valuations of the
event.
3.5 3.8 +0.24
Overall impartiality rating 3.2 3.5 +0.31**
Ethics (N= 165) (N= 149)
The article does not discriminate people because
of their cultural, religious, social or national
background.
2.9 3.2 +0.28*
Overall ethics rating 2.9 3.2 +0.28*
Means are on a scale from 1 = do not agree at allto 5 = agree entirely; overall ratings of the six
quality dimensions represent mean indexes of the items above.
Significant differences (t-test): *p< 0.05, **p< 0.01, ***p< 0.001.
10 JULIANE URBAN AND WOLFGANG SCHWEIGER
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information about who wrote the article. It is easy to recognize the absence of both these
pieces of information: they are easily identifiable facts in a news article. So a recipient
more or less only has to tick the absence or presence of these criteria when he/she is
asked to evaluate them.
By contrast, participants were less likely to recognize problems with other quality
criteria. They did not spot erroneous facts or contradictions and low transparency of
sources in the accuracy-experiment and the topicality of an article in the relevance-
experiment, as well as the variation of neutrality in the impartiality-experiment. There are
three possible reasons for that. Firstly, the evaluation of these quality criteria requires at
least some basic knowledge about the topic of the article. For example, to be able to
recognize erroneous facts or contradictions in our article, recipients need background
knowledge about the political system in Germany (in the low-quality article, the first name
of a well-known German politician was incorrect). Second, most of the concerning criteria
are not simple facts, that do appear in the article or not. They instead ask for a
considerably more complex and sometimes intuitive or emotional evaluation of the whole
text. For example, when a recipient has to evaluate the neutrality of an article he/she has
to look for explicit and implicit evaluations stated by the author throughout the whole text
and weigh up the seriousness of those evaluations with regard to a neutral coverage. That
requires a totally different kind of competence than just looking for the presence or
absence of certain information. Third, these results might also be explained by a general
poor attentiveness of participants while reading the articles. Since, for example, erroneous
facts were placed somewhere in the middle of the article and many participants only read
the article quickly, so they might just have missed the mistakes.
During the analysis we also performed basic checks on individual differences in
quality evaluation competence. We used binary logistic regression analysis to investigate
the extent to which gender, age and education influenced whether participants
recognized quality differences in the articles or not.
5
Results show hardly any influence
from these variables. Only two of six models showed a significant increase in the
prediction of recipientsability to recognize quality differences when the three variables
were entered. The first was observed for the quality dimension diversity (Nagelkerke r
2
=
0.08; χ
2
= 11.54; p< 0.05). Here, people with a university degree recognized quality
differences better than people without a university degree (Wald = 4.74; p< 0.05; Exp(B)=
2.33). The second significant impact was observed for the quality dimension comprehens-
ibility (Nagelkerke r
2
= 0.08; χ
2
= 9.89; p< 0.05). Participants between 30 and 49
recognized quality differences better than participants between 18 and 29 (Wald = 6.68;
p< 0.01; Exp(B) = 3.02). However, the small Nagelkerkesr
2
values of both regression
models illustrate the rather small impact of those variables. So, neither gender nor formal
education and life experience significantly enhance recipientsquality evaluation abilities.
We also wanted to find out how far the ratings of the different quality criteria
influence the overall quality evaluation of the articles. This is why we conducted a multiple
regression analysis across all experiments with the overall quality evaluation as criterion
and the individual quality ratings from Table 2 as predictors. Table 3 shows that recipients
overall quality evaluation depends to a considerable extent on their perceptions of
relevance, accuracy, comprehensibility and impartiality (adjusted r
2
= 0.35). Solely diversity
and ethics perceptions do not matter for recipientsoverall quality judgement of a
news item.
NEWS QUALITY FROM THE RECIPIENTSPERSPECTIVE 11
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RQ2 referred to the relationship between media brand image and judgements of
article quality appearing in this brand. As already mentioned, image was measured with a
14-item battery. In a first step, we examined the internal consistency of the item-battery with
the help of Cronbachs alpha. The items produce an alpha of 0.96, illustrating a very good
reliability. So the 14 items seem to measure media brand image appropriately. Therefore we
calculated an overall media brand image rating as mean index of the 14 items.
In a second step, we used one multiple regression analysis for each quality
dimension to investigate how participantsquality evaluations are affected by the actual
article quality, on the one hand, and the media brand image, on the other. To examine
possible interactions between actual quality and attitudes towards the media brand, two-
way interaction terms were also entered into the regression.
Table 4 illustrates that attitudes towards the media brand actually influence
participantsquality evaluations of the article. The brand image has a significant and
positive impact in all experiments. In five of these experiments it shows a main effect on
quality evaluations. In the last experiment regarding ethics, it develops impact in
interaction with the actual quality of the article. So H1 is confirmed by the data. The
effect of the media brand image on quality evaluations is moderate throughout all
experiments.
In addition, Table 4 illustrates different levels of influence for media brand image
depending on the quality dimension under investigation. As already seen in Table 2,
relevance is the dimension for which participants recognized quality differences most
easily, because relevance is relatively easy to judge by checking the absence or presence
of certain facts. And, in line with our deliberations, the actual quality of the article
influenced participantsevaluation of relevance the most. Media brand image showed a
significant but slightly weaker impact.
Comparable results can be found for the quality dimension impartiality. The
judgement of balance of viewpoint and sources in an article asks for similar evaluation-
competences as relevance criteria. Therefore, a significant impact of actual quality on the
quality evaluation of recipients in the impartiality-experiment is plausible. Besides those
TABLE 3
Impact of quality ratings on overall quality evaluation
Predictors of overall quality evaluation Standard coefficient (β)
Relevance
It becomes clear who says/did what when and where with regard to
the event.
0.09
The article is up-to-date. 0.10
Accuracy
The article does not contain erroneous facts or contradictions. 0.08
The article contains sufficiently precise amounts, dates and numbers. 0.08
Comprehensibility
For me personally, the article is comprehensible. 0.17
Impartiality
Everybody who has something to say on the events is covered in
equal depth.
0.09
The article is neutrally written, meaning the journalist does not give
his own valuations of the event.
0.11
Multiple regression (enter). Only significant coefficients on the 5% level are shown. N= 1120.
12 JULIANE URBAN AND WOLFGANG SCHWEIGER
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two criteria, impartiality furthermore includes the neutrality criterion. As we have
explained above, it is rather difficult for recipients to evaluate this criterion. So it is easier
for them to use their perceived general neutrality of a brand as heuristic in the evaluation
process. Thus, when it comes to the overall evaluation of impartiality, the actual quality
and the media brand image could be important for recipients. This is precisely what is
found in Table 4. Both factors have a significant impact on the quality evaluation.
However, media brand image is the more important factor here, since the actual quality of
the article is altogether harder to identify than in the relevance-experiment.
A similar pattern can be found in the diversity-experiment. Recipients find it hard to
evaluate the diversity of opinions and actors in a news article, as they do not always know
which viewpoints and which actors should be there.
However, it is possible for them to form a first impression on whether the text
contains only a few or a broad range of actors. This impression is then supplemented by
the general image of the brandsquality. So both actual quality and media brand image
influence the diversity-judgement of recipients, but brand image is more important here.
For the quality dimensions of accuracy and comprehensibility, the actual article
quality has small, yet non-significant effects on participantsquality evaluation. In line with
H2, a significant and (compared to the impact of actual quality) strong impact of the
media brand image can be observed. On the one hand, it is difficult for recipients to
evaluate articles for accuracy because they need background knowledge on the topic to
formulate adequate judgements. On the other hand, the evaluation of comprehensibility is
quite subjective. There are no universal accepted criteria recipients use when judging the
comprehensibility. So in both cases the actual quality of the article is less important for
recipientsquality evaluations than the media brand image.
Thus, overall Table 4 supports H2. A decrease in the ability to evaluate certain quality
dimensions comes along with an increase of the influence of media brand image when a
recipient is asked to judge the quality of a news item. The quality of the news item then
reflects the general picture recipients have of the general competence and normative
quality of the medium this news item appeared in.
Finally, we examine the ethics-experiment. It was the only experiment where the
results yielded no direct conclusions. Neither the quality nor the media brand image
TABLE 4
Impact of actual quality and attitudes towards the media brand on recipientsevaluation of
quality dimensions (multiple regressions; beta values)
Diversity Relevance Accuracy Comprehensibility Impartiality Ethics
N180 189 182 176 158 157
Main effects
Article
quality
(lowhigh)
0.15*0.31*** 0.07 0.12 0.25** 0.09
Media
brand image
0.23** 0.27*** 0.35*** 0.23** 0.35*** 0.08
Two-way interaction
Quality ×
Image
0.09 0.00 0.10 0.04 0.06 0.26**
Correlation r
2
0.07** 0.15*** 0.14*** 0.06*** 0.18*** 0.08**
*p< 0.05, **p< 0.01, ***p< 0.001.
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showed main effects in the regression analysis. However, there is an interaction effect
between the actual quality and the media brand image. We used Aiken and Wests(1991)
simple slopes test to interpret the interaction. The test examines how the actual quality of
the article impacts on ethical evaluations across different media brand images. We tested
the influence of actual quality for recipients with a media brand image one standard
deviation below and above the mean value of media brand image. Results indicate that
recipients with a negative media brand image pay more attention towards the actual
quality of an article. In this group the actual quality of the article has a significant impact on
the ethical evaluation (B=0.84; β= 0.38; p< 0.01). So the high-quality article is on average
rated 0.84 points higher than the low-quality article. Recipients with a positive media brand
image are not influenced by the actual quality of the article when forming their ethics
judgement (B=!0.35; β=!0.16; p= 0.12). This group primarily assumes that a news item
from a high-quality medium meets ethical standards, independent of the actual quality of
the news item. So what we observe here is desensitization towards ethical topics in the
coverage, if recipients have a positive picture of the media brand behind this coverage.
Discussion
In this paper we wanted to assess how well readers can assess the quality of a
single news item. Results indicate that recipients can spot differences in quality in most
normative quality dimensions. However, there were significant variations in the articles
and recipients only picked up on small differences.
Next to the actual quality, recipientsquality ratings are also influenced by recipients
perceived media brand image. This influence is especially strong if it is difficult for
recipients to recognize quality differences. In this case, the perceived competence and
quality of a medium in general function as heuristics to determine the quality of news
items from this medium.
However, these relations have to be examined in more detail. The data suggest that
the impact of attitudes towards the media brand varies according to how interested a
recipient is in a news item, and the resulting time recipients spend with reading this item.
The longer the reception time, the weaker the impact of attitudes towards the media
brand. This observation supports our consideration from Note 2 that the influence of
attitudes towards a media brand in the quality evaluation process is not only influenced
by the ability to form such evaluations, but by the motivation to do so as well.
Furthermore, it should be noticed that neither the actual quality of the news item
nor the attitudes towards the media brand had a strong impact on recipientsratings of
the different quality dimensions (adjusted r
2
from 6 to 18 per cent in Table 3). There
are two possible explanations for this. First, it seems possible that important factors
influencing recipientsquality evaluations were not taken into account here. For example,
Rager (1993) and Jungnickel (2011) could show that recipients base their quality
evaluation of a news item on their interest in the news topic. Second, quality evaluations
might mostly be random outcomes since recipients do not have proper strategies to
evaluate the quality of certain news items. Both arguments could only be tested by
systematically integrating all possible factors in one analysis. Because of limited space, this
is outside the scope of this paper.
Finally, it must be recognized that all data in this experiment result from a rigorous
forced-exposure experimental design. So we could not determine how much more
14 JULIANE URBAN AND WOLFGANG SCHWEIGER
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attentively participants may have read the articles precisely because they knew they would
have to answer questions about its quality. The small indicators for recipientsability to
judge the quality of news items might therefore disappear during usual reception situations.
By varying one quality dimension per experiment we were able to analyse
recipientsevaluation competence for each of the six quality dimensions independently.
However, this may adversely affect the external validity of the data. We are unable to show
interconnections between different quality dimensions when it comes to the overall
quality judgement.
Furthermore, we were only able to collect data on the evaluation of the article but not
on recipientsactual handling of information from it. Hence, we could confirm that
recipientsperceptions of normative quality criteria do influence their overall evaluation of a
news item. But, questions concerning the influence of normative quality on recipients
decision to read an article or to search for further information after reading it cannot be
answered in this study. Based on previous findings (e.g. Wolling 2002), we can only assume
that normative quality perceptions are related to the selection of single news items as well.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
The authors appreciate the feedback given on the manuscript from the reviewers and
editors.
FUNDING
This work was supported by the German Research Foundation [SCHW 1172/5-1].
NOTES
1. Following the tripartite model, attitudes consist of three dimensions: the cognitive,
affective and behavioural dimension (e.g. Olson and Kendrick 2008). However, the model is
often criticized for obscuring the relation between attitude and behaviour (Chaiken and
Stangor 1987, 577578.). This is why we are going to exclude the behavioural dimension
from the following deliberations and regard attitudes as a two-dimensional construct.
2. The role of motivation/willingness to evaluate news items systematically and carefully
could not be analysed in this paper because of space limits. However, in line with the
mentioned theories we would assume a stronger impact of attitudes towards a media
brand in the evaluation process when a recipient is not willing to study a news item
carefully.
3. Basic information on the image of both media can be found in YouGov (2009). The
participantsattitudes towards both brands were measured by a 14-piece semantic
differential (see Procedure). t-Tests revealed that Sueddeutsche Zeitung as a brand
achieved more positive ratings than Bild-Zeitung in all dimensions (p< 0.05).
4. In this second wave, additional variables were measured, but they are outside the scope
of this paper.
5. A correct quality judgement was coded when participantsoverall quality dimension
rating for the high-quality article was 3.515.00, or 1.002.49 for the low-quality article.
An incorrect quality judgement was coded when participantsoverall quality
NEWS QUALITY FROM THE RECIPIENTSPERSPECTIVE 15
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dimension rating for the high-quality article was 1.002.49, or 3.515.00 for the low-
quality article.
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20 JULIANE URBAN AND WOLFGANG SCHWEIGER
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... Most of those indicators are derived from normative functions journalism ought to fulfil in a democratic society (McQuail 2013). Thus, most scholars agree that they entail criteria such as accuracy, independence, diversity, impartiality, relevance, but also transparency and diligence (Fawzi and Mothes 2020;Neuberger 2014;Prochazka 2020;Urban and Schweiger 2014). Survey research has shown that there is a broad consensus among journalists and audiences that those are important quality criteria in journalism (Loosen, Reimer, and H€ olig 2020). ...
... Survey research has shown that there is a broad consensus among journalists and audiences that those are important quality criteria in journalism (Loosen, Reimer, and H€ olig 2020). However, recipients are usually not particularly good at recognizing and differentiating these normative quality criteria in actual reporting (Dohle 2018;Urban and Schweiger 2014). Rather, they evaluate journalistic news holistically, which is reflected in high correlations between perceptions of different criteria (Yale et al. 2015). ...
... One explanation for these effects of (critical) user comments can be found in theories of information processing: recipients are often neither motivated nor take the time to elaborate on the quality of journalistic content (Urban and Schweiger 2014), resulting in superficial processing. In these conditions, users base quality judgments on peripheral or heuristic cues like a news brand or the content of user comments (Masullo and Kim 2021;Prochazka, Weber, and Schweiger 2018;Weber, Prochazka, and Schweiger 2019). ...
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... However, he found no correlation between people's recall of specific flaws in media reports and generalized media trust. This result resonates with findings on recipients' news quality judgements showing that people rely on peripheral cues such as media brands (Urban & Schweiger, 2014) or user comments more than actual news articles when judging news quality (Dohle, 2017;Prochazka et al., 2018). ...
... Researchers have also established a relationship between partisans' HMP and their media trust: less trust in news media by individuals corresponds to a higher likelihood that they will perceive media as hostile towards their own opinions (Choi et al., 2009;Tsfati & Cohen, 2005). There is also strong evidence for a source effect: irrespective of content, news reports are more likely to be seen as slanted when they are attributed to an outlet that recipients expect to have a certain bias, which increases when this perceived bias runs counter to the individual's partisanship (Ariyanto et al., 2007;Arpan & Raney, 2003;Baum & Gussin, 2007;Coe et al., 2008;Urban & Schweiger, 2014;Yun et al., 2018). Exposure to news reports perceived as biased causes an erosion of trust in the news outlet (Fico et al., 2004) and in media professionals (Arceneaux et al., 2012). ...
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... Das ist bislang in der kommunikationswissenschaftlichen Forschung noch nicht eindeutig und umfassend beantwortet. Die bisherigen empirischen Erkenntnisse deuten jedoch darauf hin, dass dies nur eingeschränkt möglich ist (siehe u. a. Jungnickel, 2011;Urban & Schweiger, 2014). Bucher (2003, S. 12) argumentiert zudem aus konstruktivistischer Sicht, dass Qualitäten keine Eigenschaften, sondern Beobachter*innenkonstrukte sind und damit subjektiv. ...
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