Variety or Homogony?
But does this claim stack up? Paterson’s data shows that for a breaking story in China, “Google News consumers may be offered links to news outlets like The Arizona Republic, KRQE Television in New Mexico, or the Calgary Sun. But they will all be providing identical, unaltered wire-agency copy.”
In a separate piece of research, media analysts focused on the Canadian federal elections of 2005–06 to analyze Google’s news aggregation of the major candidates’ campaigns. The researchers concluded that “Google’s search engine...consistently promotes official, authoritative, commercial news sources and stories” and “is at risk of becoming more reflective of mainstream and commercial media”—an image that could be seen by the company as detrimental to its core brand values.
In 2001, Paterson’s team chose a sample of international stories and analyzed them using Copyfind, which is plagiarism-detection software developed by Professor Lou Bloomfield of the University of Virginia. The research compared original wire-service stories with resulting online news stories published (or linked to) by each of the news services in the sample.
In a typical result, a 972-word MSNBC story on a deadly stampede at a football match in South Africa included 602 words that existed in phrases (strings of five words or more) copied from the AP without editorial changes by MSNBC journalists. In another example, a 642-word CNN story on UN troops in the Congo included 553 words that existed in phrases copied from Reuters. The study was repeated in 2006 and showed the percentage of international news copy on the aggregator sites had risen from 68% in 2001 to 85% in 2006. A similar comparison of the major original news-content providers online showed a rise from 34% to 50% dependence on wire-agency copyApart from The New York Times, mainstream news sites such as CNN, MSNBC, and ABC seem to be doing substantially less original journalism. Today, only four media organizations—AP, Reuters, Agence France-Presse (AFP), and the BBC still do extensive international reporting. A few, such as CNN, MSNBC, The New York Times, and The Guardian, do some, but most do none at all. So for international news you could just link to the AP or the BBC and ignore the rest—but Paterson thinks this would provide a narrow worldview of global events.
The online findings are in line with Paterson’s earlier research into international TV news flows, which found that 63% of stories were based on events in the developed world. The research also found that “international news is almost exclusively the news of men” and that the subject matter of news is also changing. In 1995, sports and entertainment stories together comprised less than 1% of the news distributed globally. By 2000, it was 25%, and it is probably even higher now.
Online news in the U.S. is dominated by four sites: Yahoo! News, MSNBC, CNN, and AOL News (in that order); but Yahoo! appears to be pulling away from the rest with around 17% growth in 2006. Google News managed 20% growth (from a much smaller base) but some of the strongest growth was seen in wire agency and TV news sites such as ABC, CBS, and Fox News—probably reflecting those sites’ strong use of video clips. This added value factor probably also accounts for the AP’s 75% growth, reflecting the agency’s investment in the AP Online Video Network launch last year, an ad-supported news video service for websites.
Media analyst John Blossom, president of Shore Communications Inc., sees Paterson’s research as interesting but flawed. “He seems to be saying that the AP and Reuters are going to dominate in providing video and graphics for international news, but that is just one aspect of news coverage.” Through web search engines, Blossom points out that “virtually any news publisher is treated like a wire service, with a fair shot at being picked up as a lead source on a story. We’re also likely to find content from major outlets such as USA Today, which are becoming multimedia storytellers in their own right; video producers such as The New York Times; and video outlets such as YouTube and C-SPAN. The latter makes free footage of newsworthy events available with attribution. There are more sources of multimedia news than ever, shaping the global political debate.”
Blossom thinks Paterson fails to take into account the impact of the web on press-release wires and other channels for company-generated news. Corporate news no longer has to wait for media organizations to pick up press releases to get announcements exposed to the public. Blossom says, “Paterson also greatly underestimates the ability of blogs and other social media to act as a primary source of news. For example, if Tim O’Reilly wants to make a newsworthy observation on a con-versation that he had with Bill Gates he doesn’t need to wait for a journalist or a press release to get that out to the world—he just posts it on his O’Reilly Radar blog. If Barack Obama wants to get his spin on an event out to the world he can just post it on his campaign blog.” However, it is likely Paterson, and others, would argue that corporate press releases and political spin are outside the definition of “news” as applied in his research methodology.