Media Effects Research Lab - Research Archive

Source effects in users’ perception of online news

Student Researcher(s)

Faculty Supervisor

Dr. S. Shyam Sundar


Dr. S. Shyam Sundar


Sundar, S. S., & Nass, C. (1996, May). Source Effects in Users' Perception of Online News. Paper presented to the Communication & Technology Division at the 46th annual conference of the International Communication Association (ICA), Chicago.


The recent growth of online communications has not only opened up a new channel for news delivery but also challenged scholarly understanding of such fundamental communication concepts as source, medium, and receiver. In the online news environment, there are at least four different types of sources - news editors, computers, other users, and the user himself or herself - that correspond to different elements of traditional linear communication process models. The purpose of the present study is to determine whether the the ontological distinctions between these four types of online news sources are psychologically meaningful. An experiment was designed to measure the perception of online news content as a function of online news source.

The present investigation keeps content constant, and looks for differences in receivers' ratings of credibility, liking, quality, and representativeness of the content as a function of of the type of communication source through an experiment.


All participants (N=64) in a between-participants experiment read six news stories each on an online service. A fourth of the participants were told that the six news stories were selected by news editors. Another one-fourth were told that the stories were selected by the computer terminal on which they were accessing the stories. Yet another one-fourth were told that the stories were selected by other audience members (or users) of the online news service. The final one-fourth were given a pseudo-selection task leading them to believe that the stories were chosen by the individual user (self). After reading each story, participants filled out a paper-and-pencil questionnaire evaluating their liking for-and the credibility, quality, and representativeness of-the news story they had just read.


Three different types of sources were identified-Visible (news editors), Autonomous (computer), and Receiver (other users, self). The results indicate that different communication sources attributed to an identical news story elicit different reactions to the same story. There was a consistently significant difference in subjects' ratings of liking, quality and representativeness between the two types of Receiver sources. When other audience members of the online service chose the news stories, participants liked the stories more than when they chose the stories themselves. There was also a consistently significant difference between Visible source and one of the Receiver sources. Participants gave significantly lower liking and quality ratings to stories selected by news editors than to identical stories selected by other users of the online service. There were however no significant differences in ratings between stories selected by news editors and those selected by subjects themselves. The Autonomous source made a difference to the quality ratings. Participants gave significantly higher quality ratings to news stories selected by the computer treminal than to the same stories selected by themselves. However, there were no significant differences in ratings of stories attributed to computers and other users. Nor were there any differences between ratings attributed to computer and news editors.


The findings from this study indicate the presence of psychological differences on at least one of the four criteria between the four ontologically distinct communication sources. Most importantly, this study develops a typology of sources based on ontological distinctions, and argues for a closer consideration of the concept of "source" in communication research. The findings also put forth the argument that these distinctions are psychologically relevant by demonstrating that identical content attributed to different sources is perceived and evaluated differently by communication receivers.

For more details regarding the study contact

Dr. S. Shyam Sundar by e-mail at or by telephone at (814) 865-2173

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