Newspaper Research Journal
2018, Vol. 39(3) 259 –269
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A case of newspaper
reporting behavior at
By Matt Bird-Meyer and Sanda Erdelez
An interdisciplinary approach explores how journalists embrace
the unexpected as part of their reporting routines using Erdelez’s
framework of information encountering from the study of human
information behavior and the concepts of news routines and story
ideation from journalism studies. This paper provides a fresh
perspective on the sociology of news in nding that the participating
journalists embraced the unexpected by routinizing encountering
of story leads and opening themselves to the opportunities they
news routines, qualitative, interview/diary/debrieng, newspapers, the
United States, information encountering, communication theory and
methodology, story ideation, human information behavior
Bird-Meyer is a doctoral student, University of Missouri at Columbia, and
an assistant professor of communication and student newspaper adviser,
University of Central Missouri. Erdelez is director and professor of the School
of Library and Information Science, Simmons College in Boston. Bird-Meyer
is the corresponding author: email@example.com.
792234NRJXXX10.1177/0739532918792234Newspaper Research JournalBird-Meyer and Erdelez
260 Newspaper Research Journal 39(3)
News reporting is an exercise in following leads to develop stories, find the best
sources and fill the gaps and unknowns in story assignments. Along the way, it
is likely the journalist will come across information and new angles they did
For example, a Kansas City area journalist described once driving around an out-
door shopping mall when a thunderstorm knocked out power. The journalist saw this
as an opportunity to pursue a story. He approached people at a nearby restaurant, and
they talked for a moment before power was restored. At that point, the journalist
decided there was not much of a story to be had. He was about to leave when the man
with whom he was chatting offered up a new story idea.
“He did say, ‘Hey, man, me and my wife just started a nonprofit for veterans. I’d
like to talk to you about it.’ So, we shared contact information and I gave him my busi-
ness card. He gave me his wife’s contact. She’s the president and CEO and she emailed
me and that’s how the story came about,” said the journalist, T.P.
This experience is an example of what is in human information behavior (HIB), a
research field within library and information science, known as information encoun-
tering.1 These are situations where people experience serendipity while engaged in
information-acquisition activities. The HIB research provides a good complement to
journalism studies in understanding the information-seeking activities of journalists.
Case2 defines information behavior as intentional and unintentional information-
seeking activities, such as encountering, browsing and glimpsing.
A broad purpose of this case study is to describe and understand the information behav-
ior of newspaper journalists at three Midwestern metropolitan-area newspapers.
This exploratory inquiry takes an interdisciplinary perspective, applying theories
from journalism and HIB, to understand how journalists experience information
Routine in the Sociology of News
Scholarly literature on news practices is emerging from a period of stagnation when
routines of news producers were not seen as variable.3 Traditional research on news
construction focused on standardized, systematic routines identified in news work.
Shoemaker and Reese4 examined media routines to understand what becomes news
from an organizational perspective, where information is the raw product obtained
from suppliers (sources) that is delivered to consumers (readers/viewers). They define
news routines as “those patterned, routinized, repeated practices and forms that media
workers use to do their jobs” (p. 105).
Tuchman5 said organizations routinize work to control flows and amounts of work
done. She classified news based on whether it was “scheduled” or “unscheduled,”
whether its dissemination was urgent or not, how it was affected by the technology of
news work and whether the journalists could make decisions in advance about future
coverage of the event.
This early work in the sociology of news helped explain how producers organized
their work to improve efficiency, such as working specific beats and preferring stories
about local leaders over ordinary people.6 However, this early work did not isolate
unexpected events in the context of story ideation to study how those events affected
Bird-Meyer and Erdelez 261
news work, such as pulling journalists from a scheduled or assigned task to pursue a
The work of Tuchman and Molotch and Lester7 laid the foundation for assuming
that journalistic routines do not vary among news media organizations or journalists.
This assumption was strengthened by Eliasoph,8 Cook,9 Oliver and Maney,10 and
Ryfe.11 Becker and Vlad12 argue that this lack of variability in news routines limits the
value of this concept in news construction research. To find value in this pursuit, “The
researcher needs to find situations where the routines are not followed or in some other
way are altered in order to understand why the routines are not followed or differ and
to understand the consequences of the routines.”
One way this can be accomplished is for more research on variations in techniques
for story idea generation.13 Gans14 argued that story suggestion is a key process in
news creation. Bantz, McCorkle and Baade15 called this “story ideation” and is an
important link between routine and spontaneity in news creation. Becker and Vlad16
argue that the beat system should be viewed as one way of generating story ideas
instead of a way to structure news gathering, which is useful in studying how journal-
ists generate story ideas incidentally.
Examining Information Encountering
Journalists tend to run into people who offer story ideas. They have side conversa-
tions with people tangential to or unrelated to story assignments and discover new
story angles or entirely new stories. They come across unexpected facts on social
media or as they go about their normal lives, and they find ways to turn this informa-
tion into stories. These experiences align well with Erdelez’s17 conceptualization of
fluidity in people’s information behavior, described as efficient navigation among
“information that is pertinent to their various life-situations and consequently find
information relevant to their problem or interest areas when they are not purposefully
seeking that specific information.” Serendipitous encounters with information have
attracted interest of many library and information science researchers. Agarwal’s18
recent review points to systematic development of this area of human information
research as demonstrated in works by Erdelez,19 Williamson,20 Foster and Ford,21
Björneborn,22 Makri and Blandford,23 McCay-Peet and Toms24 and many others.
Erdelez’s25 model of information encountering proposes that information users
switch from the foreground task of finding specific information to a background inter-
est or problem-related task. Erdelez26 identified four elements useful in understanding
a serendipitous encounter with information—the user who encounters information,
environment where the experience occurs, characteristics of information encountered
and characteristics of information needs that the encounter addresses. These elements
helped with conceptualization of this study of information encountering by journalists,
environments where they conduct their reporting, characteristics of story leads they
encounter and the use of the information gathered through these leads to create news
Erdelez27 developed a typology of people who encounter information. Nonencounterers
have difficulty recalling any information-encountering experience. Occasional
encounterers sometimes encounter information but pass these experiences off as luck.
Encounterers acknowledge that they bump into information and enjoy the experience.
262 Newspaper Research Journal 39(3)
However, they do not make a connection between information encountering and their
overall information behavior. Super-encounterers regularly experience serendipitous
encounters with information and feel this is an important part of their information-
Few studies have utilized information encountering in relation to news media.
Tewksbury et al.28 and Yadamsuren29 studied how news consumers encounter every-
day life information while reading online news. Tian and Robinson30 focused on infor-
mation encountering in the context of everyday life information seeking for health
information. This paper contributes to literature on news routines and information
encountering by addressing the following questions:
How does information encountering manifest itself in routine reporting practices?
How does information encountering affect a journalist’s reporting and story ide-
This exploratory study relied on a convenience sample of five male newspaper
reporters from three metropolitan-area newspapers. Two came from the same metro-
area daily newspaper, two were from the same semiweekly suburban newspaper and
one came from a suburban daily newspaper. D.H. is a political beat reporter at the
metro-area daily newspaper, has 40 years of reporting experience in newspapers and
television and holds a journalism degree. I.C. also works there, covering police, fire
and general news; has three years of experience and holds a master’s degree in journal-
ism and mass communication. J.F. is a business and general assignment reporter at the
suburban daily newspaper, has 31 years of experience as a copy editor and reporter and
has a political science degree and two years of graduate studies in journalism. R.P. is
a city beat reporter at the semiweekly newspaper and has 33 years of experience, and
studied communication while working newspaper jobs but did not finish his degree.
T.P. works at the same semiweekly newspaper, works the schools and general news
beat, has 14 years of experience and studied journalism and creative writing but did
not complete his degree.
The five participants contributed to theoretical saturation of evidence based on their
diversity in terms of experience, beats, publication frequency and their ability to add
insight to the phenomenon of information encountering. This study began with a semi-
structured interview with questions that were informed by Yadamsuren.31 This is a
preferred method to start an information-encountering study because it allows an inter-
viewer to establish a rapport with the participant, familiarizes them with the phenom-
enon and allows for additional probing questions based on their responses.
During the interview, the participants were asked to reflect on the last story they
had published in the newspaper, how the story originated, their reporting process,
Bird-Meyer and Erdelez 263
whether they encountered new sources, information and angles and whether encoun-
tering information incidentally was typical. The questions focused on the journalists’
last published story to facilitate recall of their experiences.
Next, participants were given diary instructions that described how they were to
record their reporting process for an upcoming story, from the story’s origination
through publication. Again, the diary focused on a current story to take advantage of
the journalists’ recall and to capture as many episodes of information encountering as
Four of five participants provided diaries (T.P. was the exception). After diaries were
submitted, the researcher emailed the participants to reflect on their experiences.
Data analysis began with reading data, writing memos to open lines of inquiry and
then creating categories.32 To see patterns and to constantly compare routine and
encountering, two parent categories of “Encountering” and “Routine” were created.
During the axial coding process, sibling categories were created based on insight from
the memos, scholarly literature on news work and information encountering and what
the participants were saying.
A total of 55 codes were created with two primary parent codes being “Encountering”
and “Routine.” Sibling codes emerged during the axial coding process and were nested
under these two parent codes with memos written to describe the strengths or weak-
nesses of encounters and to describe instances where encountering was embedded in
routine. This coding framework and memo making helped researchers track the pres-
ence of information encountering and routine in a constant comparison method.33
During analysis of the codes, a clear trend emerged where each journalist provided a
sort of philosophy of reporting. Each participant referred to bumping into or acciden-
tally encountering sources, information and ideas. This helped the researcher create
sibling codes during a second round of coding called “Commenting on Encountering”
and “Reporting Process” under a broader “Encountering” category.
The second round of coding focused on the combined purposeful and opportunistic
nature of excerpts found in the “Encountering” parent code to narrow the number of
excerpts. Excerpts removed from evaluation had the weakest connections to encoun-
tering, were too vague and required further probing, were more superficial in terms of
encountering or were pieces of information that may allude to encountering but were
A total of 98 encountering excerpts were collected in the second round of coding,
with 69 collected under “Commenting on Encountering,” 29 collected under
“Reporting Process,” and 57 were removed. The excerpts were analyzed a third time
for their ties to routine using this question as a guide: are there any excerpts where
routine does not apply? The researchers could not find any instances as each excerpt
spoke to a behavior where the journalists put themselves in situations where encoun-
tering is likely to occur. The fact that each encountering excerpt included an aspect of
routine is manifest in a quote from J.F.: “I think it does happen incidentally but you
have to work at it. Does that make sense? That’s sort of a paradox there but that’s sort
of the whole tenor of this whole conversation.”
Finally, codes in the “Commenting on Encountering” and “Reporting Process” cat-
egories were analyzed a fourth time to further narrow the number of excerpts and keep
only the strongest cases of encountering as routine. This was accomplished by using
three questions Makri and Blandford34 developed to judge whether certain encounters
264 Newspaper Research Journal 39(3)
are encountered incidentally—how unexpected were the circumstances, how insight-
ful was the connection itself and how valuable was the outcome? After reviewing both
coding categories, excerpts under “Commenting on Encountering” fit the best. The
“Reporting Process” category did not fit with this portion of the analysis because the
excerpts coded as encounters were not as strong.
When asked to recall the last story they had published, only one clear example
of information encountering as defined by Erdelez35 was identified. This was T.P.’s
pursuit of a story about the blackout in his town. However, D.H. described a clear
information-encountering event that occurred some 20 years ago when he ran into
someone he knew at a meeting, which led to a different story. D.H.’s willingness to
offer this unsolicited anecdote as commonplace speaks to a significant finding—
encountering incidental information is embedded in their reporting routines.
Journalists cultivate sources and attend to beats as they build institutional knowledge.
These sources and this knowledge increase the likelihood that journalists will run into
people and issues that later become stories. “But I think it still is cultivating sources over
time and just being known in the community and doing good work and being trusted and
that way people come up to you and say, hey have you heard about A, B or C?” J.F. said.
J.F. recorded in his diary a process of reporting on various stories that spanned
several months. He experienced a sort of epiphany while reporting on a project that
helped him connect the dots to a larger story, which he found would work well for a
special section in the paper. “To be honest, if I hadn’t had this Business Review project
to do—and a deadline—I’m not sure how long it would have taken to connect the
dots,” he wrote. This is a nebulous example of encountering but a good example of
building institutional knowledge and sources over time.
The more meaningful connection to encountering came when he commented on his
cognitive process. “How did I get this? How did I bump into this information? I got
each, except the governor’s announcement, by going to a lot of meetings and inter-
viewing a lot of people.” This speaks to how J.F. routinizes encountering by placing
himself in situations where encountering is likely to happen: meetings, meeting people
and talking to people.
R.P. talked about working on a story when his primary source offered a piece of
I am investigating another story, about a struggling business that’s hooked up
with city subsidies and asked the banker a couple of general questions about
unsecured loans, etc., regarding this company when he volunteered that it had
recently hired a former city employee.
I.C. worked with a colleague on an update to a story about a fire that killed two
firefighters. The story angle changed as the reporting progressed, specifically after
interviewing two retired firefighters as the journalists were led to experts on fire sci-
ence. “So, yeah, the story definitely evolved over the course of two or three days based
on what we learned and what we couldn’t find out.”
Bird-Meyer and Erdelez 265
During D.H.’s interview, he talked about working on a political story about a neigh-
boring state’s governor. He first consulted trusted sources off the record. Those sources
confirmed some ideas, which led D.H. to seek other sources and specific story angles.
However, his encounters were purposeful and were based on sources he had cultivated
over the years and the institutional knowledge he had built on his political beat.
“It’s just I’ve covered politics for 40 years now. So, you just absorb things and, you
know, that absorption leads you to information that then leads to other things and then
it becomes a sort of technical battle.”
Although these results show minimal direct instances of information encountering
based on the conceptualization of the phenomenon in library and information science
literature, each journalist articulated how important this phenomenon is to their work.
This inspired a shift in the analysis to focus on the participants’ reporting philosophies,
using the code “Commenting on Encountering” to build a typology of these journalists.
A total of 33 excerpts were chosen to build this typology. However, the excerpts
were not evenly distributed as J.F. and D.H. had the most with 12 and 10, respectively.
T.P. reported only one. The reason for the disparity is the depth in which J.F. and D.H.
described their reporting philosophies and their willingness to offer anecdotes outside
of the researcher’s line of questioning. The other three participants were more concise
in their answers and did not deviate much from the questions.
Although only one case of information encountering was reported, it still was clear
these journalists routinize encountering and make themselves open to the phenome-
non. “If it’s not happening regularly, you’re not doing your job as a reporter,” J.F.
wrote on information encountering in his diary. “Reporters are always bumping into
interesting information that may or may not be directly related to a news story or
topic,” D.H. wrote in his follow-up email. “That’s the part of the job that is fun, and
makes for good stories,” I.C. wrote in his diary. “Oh, I think it’s part of the job. It’s the
part of the job that I really relish because part of finding new sources is talking to
people and gaining trust with people,” T.P. said during his interview. “I mean you miss
a lot of good stories if you weren’t open to those sort of things,” R.P. said during his
It appears that years of experience, frequency of publication and story assignment
type were not strong factors in determining whether journalists routinize the incidental
acquisition of information. D.H., a daily journalist with 40 years of experience who
worked on a longitudinal story, had the longest interview at nearly one hour, resulting
in 51 encountering excerpts. T.P., on the other hand, has 14 years of experience, writes
for a weekly newspaper, worked on a feature story and had the shortest interview.
However, T.P. had the one true information-encountering experience. Although the
unit of analysis for this study is each encounter, quantifying the experiences does not
adequately express each participant’s reporting philosophy. D.H. may simply be more
articulate in expressing the theoretical underpinnings of his reporting behavior.
I.C., who has three years of experience, said this research project provided a new
awareness for what he has always done. “I would say that the research project put the
idea of ‘accidentally bumping into information’ into words for me in a way that I had
not considered before,” he said. This project also inspired him to be more open to
encountering. “If anything, I guess this encourages me to try to make that happen a
little more and take advantage of it when I can.”
266 Newspaper Research Journal 39(3)
Media researchers have struggled to identify elements of news routines that vary
across time, across settings, among media organizations and among journalists.
However, the information-encountering model considers unexpected diversions from
information-seeking tasks, which vary along a spectrum from journalist to journalist.
The spectrum is evident in this study as a small, yet diverse, group of journalists
shared similar philosophies of reporting that put them in positions to encounter infor-
mation. Some of them were simply more enthusiastic about their explanations.
Based on Erdelez’s typology of encounterers,36 no journalist in this study could be
considered a nonencounterer or occasional encounterer. They did not have difficulty
recalling information-encountering experiences, and when they described their experi-
ences they did not pass these off as luck. Encounterers acknowledge that they bump
into information and enjoy the experience. However, encounterers do not make a con-
nection between information encountering and their information behavior in general.
By this definition, I.C. and T.P. appear to be encounterers. “It’s like getting a present
in the mail that you weren’t expecting,” I.C. said.
He enjoys the experience, but I.C. does not appear to seek side conversations as
much as D.H., J.F. and R.P. He discusses his work in a more linear fashion. “The act
of investigating and learning about new things and being surprised has always been a
big part of what I liked about this work, but I rarely thought about it in the way that
you put it down here,” I.C. said.
R.P. falls somewhere between an encounterer and super-encounterer. He routinely
cultivates sources on his beat and attends meetings in pursuit of new ideas. “Oh, I hope
that it happens. I try to leave myself open to hear those kinds of things so I think it
leads to better stories and it helps me be better informed on my beat so I know what’s
D.H. and J.F. are super-encounterers as both made numerous comments about the
nonlinear process of their work, how they regularly bump into information and feel
that it is an important part of their work. “Yes, reporters make incidental contact with
new information all the time,” J.F. said. Also, J.F. and D.H. frequently referred to the
importance of having side conversations with people. “A lot comes from informal
conversations just checking up on the progress of things,” J.F. said.
Shoemaker and Reese37 argue that routines ensure the media system will respond in
predictable ways. Similarly, Molotch and Lester38 write that news must be viewed as
purposive behavior. However, Schudson39 argues that spontaneity plays more of a sig-
nificant factor in the creation of news than the early scholars on news construction
allowed. The information-encountering model offers a lens through which to view this
spontaneity and unpredictability.
Tuchman40 used the phrase “news net” for the systematic routine of beat reporting
and deploying journalists to specific locations and events. In other words, newspapers
strategically place journalists in positions to be close to newsmakers, sources and loca-
tions where they may encounter news. Shoemaker and Reese41 say that once the news
net is deployed, the net typically solidifies the newsworthiness of what happens inside
of it at the expense of other events. However, this is not the whole story. This research
shows that journalists routinely cast the news net to ensure a steady flow of informa-
tion, sometimes at the expense of other events, but along the way they encounter new
Bird-Meyer and Erdelez 267
sources, new angles and sometimes entirely new story ideas. They build institutional
knowledge about the best directions in which to cast their nets.
Shoemaker and Reese42 use the metaphor of journalists being handcuffed to rou-
tine, but their routines have variability, and that variability is the journalists’ ability to
put themselves in positions to incidentally encounter information and story ideas. This
article presents an exploratory study of how journalists experience information
encountering, revealing several contexts in which this phenomenon is exhibited that
will help guide future research in this area.
First, beat reporting cultivates institutional knowledge through sourcing, identify-
ing new sources and encountering new information. Second, longitudinal stories
develop over time. Third, sometimes journalists set out on an assignment and return
with their necessary reporting plus something they encountered along the way that
fulfills another prescribed need (such as a weekly column). Fourth, there are moments
where something truly unexpected occurs, which fits the strictly construed definition
of information encountering.
These contexts provide a framework for an analytical understanding of tasks a jour-
nalist is engaged in the moment unexpected information is encountered. That is why it
will be important to consider what the user is doing at the time information is encoun-
tered in a more longitudinal, observational study. Is the journalist engaging in some
form of HIB or is the journalist going about their normal daily life? Two issues are at
hand here: first, is the behavior that a journalist is engaged in at the time of information
encountering considered an information behavior? Second, if the journalist’s action is
an information behavior, what type of behavior is it and where does it fall on the spec-
trum that ranges from unfocused exploring (such as browsing) to focused searching?
Next, it will be important to consider the journalist’s information needs related to
the task he or she is engaged in at the time of an information encounter. Again, where
does his or her need fall on the spectrum from simple interest in a topic to being
assigned a specific task? What level of information encountering occurs at the inter-
section of these spectrums? Tuchman’s classification of news as scheduled or unsched-
uled is useful because it is essentially the spectrum on which to analyze information
Evaluating data through this lens should provide a more precise understanding of
how information encountering is embedded in routine to build on the literature on
news routines and story ideation. What makes a journalist deviate from a reporting
task? What brings them back to that task and what happens to that unexpected piece of
information? Is it forgotten or noted and stored for later use? Although this study
included a limited sample size, this exploratory method opened new avenues for
inquiry in news routines and story ideation and provides a model on which to improve
the research design to include direct observation of journalists.
The research questions that guided this study did not consider the prevalence of encoun-
ters but sought to describe and understand the phenomenon in the context of news routines.
The prevalence of encounters is well established in the literature in a variety of contexts,
from scientific discovery,43 entrepreneurship,44 education,45 to online news reading.46 This
builds on that literature by focusing on news construction.
268 Newspaper Research Journal 39(3)
The five participants in this study provided insight into their philosophy of journal-
ism with the common threads of getting out of the office more to talk to people, attend
meetings even when you are not required to, talk to people in person, stay curious and
pay attention. These are lessons learned in school and through experience, and these
are routines common to the practice of journalism. However, sometimes, it simply
takes naming a phenomenon for someone to recognize its existence, pay closer atten-
tion to it and find ways to improve on it. In this case, information encountering is a
chance phenomenon, but these journalists have demonstrated that chance encounters
may never happen or happen with minimal frequency unless you put yourself in posi-
tions to bump up against the unexpected.
This article was accepted for publication under the editorship of Sandra H. Utt and Elinor Kelley Grusin.
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Bird-Meyer and Erdelez 269
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