Online news coverage of government health policy: powerful sources, time constraints and the role of specialised reporting
Official and elite sources have always sought to play dominant roles in shaping news content. The pressure of daily news production also ensures communication professionals and those supplying information subsidies have become important pillars of many journalists' work routines. However, for journalists and news producers, online formats offer new technological capabilities, spatial freedom and unrestricted access to alternative sources. This suggests there is the possibility for new voices and narratives - traditionally omitted from mainstream coverage - to be heard.
This study, using health policy stories on online news websites as its focus, considers: whether mainstream general news reporting is evolving to include alternative perspectives; what factors are influencing the narratives and frames; and to what extent source networks are being developed and used in generating story content. It considers what variation exists between the content produced in net-native environments and “legacy” organisations, as well as variations between specialised beat reporters and general reporters.
This mixed-methods, empirical research uses two phases of content analysis over an 14-week period, looking at five news organisations:
(i) an initial quantitative phase to gather story data and account for the sources used; and (ii) a secondary phase which will use an ethnographic content analysis approach on clusters of related stories to describe what variation exists between them in terms of sources and form, where they originated, and how they developed over a number of days.
Following this content analysis stage, interviews will be carried out with journalists who wrote some of the coded stories. These interviews will be used to determine what pressures, source relations and work routines influence a final news story. They will also consider the journalists’ role perception and their attitudes towards their work environment. Interviews will also be sought with communications specialists from relevant lobby groups or state departments, to consider how they feel their messages are being carried, or challenged, within media content.
The research will draw on literature on normative media theory, the internet’s democratising potential, powerful primary definers, changing journalistic roles - in particular despecialisation among reporters - and the political economy of online news. It also deals with homogenisation of content, inter-media agenda setting, and information subsidies. Using structuration theory, the research also considers the relationship between structure and agency; the limitations of the environment a journalist works within, as well as the possibilities for a journalist to alter these structures.