The special taste of snack news: An application of niche theory to understand the appeal of Facebook as a source for political news
First Monday

The special taste of snack news: An application of niche theory to understand the appeal of Facebook as a source for political news by Svenja Schafer, Michael Sulflow, and Philipp Muller



Abstract
Facebook has become an important source for political information since news posts are an essential part of the content that is shared and spread within the SNS. The present study applies the uses and gratifications approach and the theory of the niche to understand the specific appeal of Facebook as a source for political news. We compare the gratifications obtained from political Facebook news with those of political television news and newspapers. For this purpose, we conducted an online survey of Internet users (N=422). Results show that users hardly ever visit Facebook with the primary intention to find political information. Interestingly however, they estimate that about a quarter of the posts they receive contains political information. The most important dimension of gratifications obtained from political Facebook news content are “entertainment” and “killing time”. In these dimensions, Facebook is superior to political television news and newspapers. For “balanced information”, “surveillance”, and “social utility”, the two traditional sources outperform Facebook. Analyses of niche breadth and overlap demonstrate that Facebook has a comparatively narrow niche and a low overlap with the two traditional news outlets. This means that political news content on Facebook serves a very specific function which is complementary to other sources. Users mainly turn to political news posts on Facebook for reasons related to distraction. However, their value can be seen in the fact that users might this way get in touch with political news that they otherwise might not have been exposed to at all.

Contents

Introduction
Facebook as a news medium
Snack news and snacking
Gratifications obtained from (snack) news on Facebook
Different sources, different functions? The theory of the niche
Method
Results
Discussion and conclusion

 


 

Introduction

The Internet and its various ways of gaining access to political information have dramatically changed news use patterns. Previous research demonstrates that social network sites (SNS) are becoming increasingly important. About 66 percent of Facebook users and 44 percent of all American adults state that they are receiving news via SNS (Gottfried and Shearer, 2016). News posts make an essential part of the content that is shared on Facebook (Glynn, et al., 2012; Kümpel, et al., 2015). However, despite the frequent use of SNS as a source for political news, only a minority of American Facebook users (four percent) regards Facebook as a main source for news [1]. While especially users with a low need for cognition regard Facebook as a substitute for other news sources (Müller, et al., 2016), many others appear to rather use Facebook news complementary to other news outlets. This raises questions about the specific function and value of Facebook as a political news source.

To understand the benefit of news on SNS compared to other sources it is necessary to consider how political news are presented in these kinds of outlets. Political news posts on Facebook can be seen as news snacks — a very compact news format which contains only essential information of a political news story — that appears on the News Feed. From this News Feed, political news snacks find their way to the user even though they did not explicitly look for political information. This is a completely new way of incidental news consumption. Little is known about the way Facebook is perceived as source for political news or the benefits of snack news on Facebook compared to other news formats. The present study aims to address this gap in research. We explore the role of political Facebook news content compared to traditional political news media by applying the theory of the niche (Dimmick, 2003). In a survey of German Internet users, we investigate the gratifications obtained from political Facebook news content as well as from political television and newspapers news. This enables us to analyze Facebook’s strengths and weaknesses as a political news medium, and compare Facebook with traditional news media. For this purpose, we use indicators from the theory of the niche: niche breadth, competitive superiority, and niche overlap. These indicators help to determine the specific qualities and functions of Facebook as a political news source.

 

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Facebook as a news medium

Facebook has become a common way to get in touch with political news. In Germany, 27 percent of the population used the SNS as a source for political news in the previous week. If just people in the age group of 18-24 years old are considered, the number even raises to 39 percent (Hölig and Hasebrink, 2016). News organizations and users alike are active in spreading news posts via Facebook (Ju, et al., 2014; Kümpel, et al., 2015). This active distribution of news is the main cause for the flood of news that is visible on user`s News Feed (Glynn, et al., 2012). As a result, exposure to political information on Facebook occurs with an increasing frequency.

An important characteristic of Facebook as a source for political news is that entertainment content and serious information are presented next to each other. As a result, people get frequently in touch with political news on Facebook even if dominant motives to visit SNS are of a social nature, e.g., keeping in touch with family members and (distant) friends, or refer to finding distraction as well as relaxation (Smock, et al., 2011; Raacke and Bonds-Raacke, 2008). Thus, exposure to political information can be seen as a by-product that occurs incidentally when visiting the News Feed (Valeriani and Vaccari, 2016; Hölig and Hasebrink, 2014a). Only few studies address the engagement with political news on Facebook. Research from the U.K. shows that 55 percent of Facebook members incidentally encounter news posts while browsing through their News Feed (Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, 2016). But only 12 percent specifically visit Facebook with the intention to search for news. To understand the appeal of Facebook as a political news medium, we suggest to take a closer look at the potentials of news posts as sources for information as well as different ways to engage with them.

 

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Snack news and snacking

The term “snack” was first used to describe a specific type of media content when YouTube became increasingly popular to fulfill entertainment needs of Internet users. According to Shao (2009), YouTube is especially valued for offering “a buffet of snack videos, highly meeting people’s needs for high-speed entertainment munching” [2]. Compared to full-length messages, media snacks are convenient bite-sized content packages that can be consumedlike cookies or chipswith a high amount of speed and flexibility (Shao, 2009; Newman, 2010). Thus, snack news represent a compact news format which conveys a reduced version of a news story. Snack news are composed of a headline, a picture, a teaser of the news story, and social endorsement cues including “likes”, ”shares“ or comments of other users. Such news can be found when opening a news app on the smartphone, on the front pages of news Web sites and — increasingly — as posts on SNS like Facebook (Mitchell and Page, 2015).

Political snack news can be the starting point for a further more in-depth news consumption since they mostly contain a link to a complete news story. However, Costera Meijer and Groot Kormelink (2014) have argued that there is a large variety in how users consume online news. For example, “reading”, is practiced in longer sessions and aims at gaining knowledge for opinion formation or at satisfying people’s need for orientation. Yet, there are other forms like “snacking” which is defined as a heuristic lean-back way of news processing that serves the purpose of just getting a basic overview by scanning the headlines and teasers of the day’s events (Costera Meijer and Groot Kormelink, 2014). Then, the main activity for the engagement with political news posts is just to scroll through the News Feed to know what is going on in the world without reading the full news stories behind political news posts. Posts themselves have priority as a source of information. Since Facebook is often used as a time filler in a habitualized low-effort fashion (Vishwanath, 2015; Smock, et al., 2011), users might explicitly value this news snacking opportunity that Facebook offers.

Considering the special form of news presentation on Facebook, we want to investigate how users engage with the SNS as a source for political news. More precisely, we want to find out to what extent users visit SNS with the intention to get an overview of political news, how much political information they find on their News Feed and how they interact with these political news posts (e.g., just reading, liking, commenting). Since none of these questions have been addressed in previous studies for Germany, we pose the general questions:

RQ1a: To what extent is Facebook used with the intention to receive political news?

RQ1b: How much political news posts do users perceive to find on their News Feed when visiting the SNS?

RQ1c: How do users interact (reading, liking, sharing, commenting, status updating) with political news posts?

 

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Gratifications obtained from (snack) news on Facebook

The uses and gratifications (U&G) approach describes the dominant paradigm for explaining the selection of particular media channels and content with underlying social and psychological motives (Katz, et al., 1973). According to the U&G approach, the audience acts purposefully as well as goal-directed and actively evaluates the potential outcome of media usage to fulfill their needs (Lee and Ma, 2012; Rubin and Perse, 1987; Ruggiero, 2000). Concerning news consumption, it is assumed that people choose news outlets that satisfy needs such as information, entertainment, surveillance or escapism (Diddi and LaRose, 2006; Lee and Ma, 2012). In other words, news sources have functions (gratifications) for recipients which are essential to explain usage patterns. When it comes to gratifications, the approach differentiates between gratifications sought and obtained. Gratifications sought represent the expected benefits or motivations which lead people to expose themselves to specific media messages or outlets while gratifications obtained describe an ex-post judgment about the benefits that exposure to a media outlet or message has actually provided (Palmgreen, et al., 1980).

A variety of news media outlets and types of presentation have been investigated regarding their gratifications including traditional media such as television and newspapers as well as online outlets (Palmgreen, et al., 1980; Rubin and Perse, 1987; Rubin, 2009; Lin, et al., 2005). For example, a study by Palmgreen, et al. (1980) showed that watching news on television is mainly motivated by surveillance, entertainment, parasocial interaction, and interpersonal utility needs. These findings concerning TV news use were supported by Levy and Windahl (1984). When it comes to newspapers, functions related to understanding, learning, and gaining knowledge seem to be much more important than emotional or entertainment gratifications (Lin, et al., 2005). For instance, Kippax and Murray (1980) found that newspapers were perceived as especially useful for the information related needs understanding, knowledge and credibility while any emotional needs were only weakly satisfied.

Lin, et al. (2005) investigated gratifications of online news. Of interest were the gratifications entertainment, interpersonal communication, information scanning, and information skimming. The most important factor for online news consumption was the dimension information scanning which consists of items like “getting a good overall picture of events in the world” while entertainment was least important. Comparing gratifications obtained from offline and online news, the authors found no significant difference for the gratifications entertainment and interpersonal communication while information skimming and scanning was significantly higher for online news [3]. In a more recent study, Zhang and Zhang (2013) showed that surveillance which describes “the basic urge to know about surroundings that may influence one’s life” [4] is the most important gratification of online news. Moreover, the improvement of one’s social status, opinion development, and social utility were important gratifications related to online news exposure.

Most studies applying the U&G approach to online news do not distinguish between different online activities like visiting a news site, a blog or stumbling upon news on SNS. However, since there is no doubt that different ways of news presentation and differing platform functions essentially influence obtained gratifications (Ruggiero, 2000), it can be assumed that several online news outlets fulfill different gratifications. For Facebook in general, gratifications that drive the usage of the platform are well explored (Raacke and Bonds-Raacke, 2008; Papacharissi and Mendelson, 2010; Quan-Haase and Young, 2010; Smock, et al., 2011). Important motives to visit Facebook are above all social interaction and finding distraction (Raacke and Bonds-Raacke, 2008; Papacharissi and Mendelson, 2010; Orchard, et al., 2014). However, even though informational dimensions have also been considered as possible motives to visit Facebook, these gratifications relate to general information without further specification or to gratifications related to information sharing (Orchard, et al., 2014; Smock, et al., 2011). Thus, it has not been investigated what specific gratifications users obtain from their encounters with political news content on their Facebook News Feed. We want to address this gap in research.

RQ2: Which gratifications do people obtain from Facebook as source for political news?

We focus on gratifications obtained since we are interested in the gratifications which Facebook actually provides. Due to the fact that political news use on Facebook can be seen as a by-product of visiting the SNS (Valeriani and Vaccari, 2016), not the expectations but the gratifications which result from the actual encounters with political news posts are crucial to understand the value of Facebook as a source for political news.

We focus on gratifications obtained since we are interested in the gratifications which Facebook actually provides. Due to the fact that political news use on Facebook can be seen as a by-product of visiting the SNS (Valeriani and Vaccari, 2016), not the expectations but the gratifications which result from the actual encounters with political news posts are crucial to understand the value of Facebook as a source for political news.

Moreover, we want to investigate possible reasons for gratifications that users obtain from Facebook news content. It can be assumed that specific features of a media channel shape its potential of triggering a specific set of obtained gratifications (Ruggiero, 2000). Two groups of unique functions of political news content on Facebook can be distinguished. First, Facebook offers political news in a snack size form. That way, users are able to receive a quick and incidental overview about current news even if they primarily turn to Facebook for entertainment or social purposes. This might be something that users specifically value about political news content on Facebook. Second, they can actively interact with political news posts on Facebook. The platform offers a multitude of interactive functionalities such as liking, sharing or commenting political news that might cause specific gratifications for its users. In order to differentiate whether the unique gratifications of political news posts on Facebook trace back to their snack size form or their interactivity, we ask:

RQ3: How is reading political snack news on Facebook and active interaction with political news on Facebook (liking, commenting, sharing) related to the gratifications people obtain from Facebook as source for political news?

 

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Different sources, different functions? The theory of the niche

In order to investigate how these obtained gratifications might differ between Facebook as a political news medium and traditional sources for political information, we draw on the theory of the niche (Dimmick, 2003). Niche theory can be seen as a valuable addition to the U&G approach. The focus is not just on the gratifications of a single source but on the functional competition and coexistence of other news outlets (Feaster, 2009; Ha and Fang, 2012). Originally, the theory stems from ecological studies [5] and is applied to investigate how organisms with similar functions and relying on the same resources compete and coexist (Dimmick, 2003). This notion has been transferred to communication environments (Dimmick and Rothenbuhler, 2009). Niches can be defined as the role a specific media outlet or channel plays for its users (Ha and Fang, 2012). According to Dimmick (1993), the niches of competing media outlets can be described using three essential concepts: niche breadth, niche overlap, and competitive superiority.

Niche breadth (NB) describes the range and variety of gratifications provided by a medium. It helps to determine “the degree to which a medium is capable of gratifying a relatively broad or narrow spectrum of statements on a gratification dimension” [6]. Accordingly, the breadth of a medium’s niche indicates whether the outlet is a rather generalist source from which recipients obtain a wide range of gratifications or a specialist source which serves a very specific purpose. The niche breadth can be computed as follows (Dimmick, 1993):

 

formula 1
 

 

Where u, l = the upper and lower bounds of a scale, GO = a gratification value from a rating scale, N = the number of respondents using a medium, n = the first respondent, K = the number of scales (items) on a dimension, k = the first gratification scale (item). The niche breadth ranges from 0 to 1 while lower values indicate a higher degree of specialization of medium and higher values a more generalist source.

Niche overlap (NO) refers to the comparison of two different media sources and describes the perceived similarity (Dimmick, et al., 2000). It can be seen as an indicator for competition between outlets, since it shows to which degree two media sources satisfy the same gratifications. It is calculated:

 

formula 2
 

 

Where i, j = medium i and medium j, GO = a gratification value on a scale for i and j, N = the number of respondents who use both i and j, n = the first respondent, K = the number of scales (items) on a dimension, k = the first gratification scale (item). The lower bound of the niche overlap is zero and is attained if two media sources have the exact same values for all gratifications. The upper bound is u minus l which indicates no similarity between the sources. Taken together, low values indicate a high overlap which means a high level of substitutability while higher values show a state of complementarity [7].

Competitive superiority (CS) additionally discloses whether one of two compared media sources provides a gratification to a higher degree. For its calculation, two values are computed that indicate the degree to which the two media outlets fulfill the gratifications under investigation to a higher extent than the respective other. Competitive superiority is then determined by comparing these two values with a t-test. As Dimmick, et al. (2000) argue a “medium that obtains a significantly higher superiority score than another medium is superior in providing gratifications to the audience members” [8]. Competitive superiority is computed as follows:

 

formula 3
 

 

 

formula 4
 

 

i, j = medium i and j, mi>j = the value of respondent’s rating for those scale items on which i is rated greater j, mj>i = the value of a respondent’s rating for those scale items on which j is rated greater than i, K = the number of scales on a dimension, k = the first gratification scale, N = the number of respondents who use both i and j and n = the first respondent.

Concerning political news and the comparison of different news sources, the theory of the niche has especially been applied to investigate how the Internet affects the use of traditional news sources. Previous studies found a competitive relationship between the Internet and traditional sources (Dimmick, et al., 2004; Ha and Fang, 2012). The Internet has a broader niche, shows a high overlap with sources like TV or newspapers and is superior in fulfilling the needs of users (Dimmick, et al., 2004). For instance, Randle (2003) compared the gratification niches of print magazines and the Internet for all special-interest magazine subscribers. Regarding the different cognitive and affective gratifications the magazines and Internet provided, he found that the Internet has a much broader niche. Put differently, the Internet fulfills a greater variety of functions and is superior to magazines in terms of cognitive gratifications, but not for affective ones. However, the studies have in common that they just consider the Internet as a whole. This means that it is unclear how the niches of specific forms of online news can be described. Snack news on SNS are a new phenomenon with a special form of political news presentation. The theory of the niche is essential to understand the specific function of political snack news on Facebook in comparison to traditional sources for political information. More specifically, we are interested in how far Facebook differs from television and newspapers, since they are the most important sources for political news (Bernhard, et al., 2014). Therefore we ask:

RQ4a: What is the niche breadth of political news on Facebook (compared to the traditional news sources TV and newspapers)?

RQ4b: What is the niche overlap of political news on Facebook and the traditional news sources TV and newspapers?

RQ4c: For which gratifications are political news on Facebook superior/inferior compared to the traditional news sources TV and newspapers?

 

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Method

Participants and procedure

To answer our research questions we conducted an online survey among German Internet users between July and August 2015. We used a snowball technique to spread the link to the questionnaire. More specifically, 52 student research assistants supported our study by posting the link on their profile asking their Facebook friends to participate in the study and to disseminate the link through their Facebook network. This procedure is adequate because only Facebook members can be familiar with SNS as a source for political news which is necessary to answer our research questions. In total, 422 participants completed the questionnaire. On average, the sample was rather young (M = 23.5; SD = 8.25) and highly educated (89 percent high school degree). Moreover, 61 percent of our participants were female. Most participants (66 percent) used Facebook several times a day, another 20 percent at least once a day. Since Facebook does not provide any information about the age, sex, or educational level of their members, it is difficult to judge how well our sample represents Facebook users. However, survey data on social media users in Germany indicates that SNS are preferred by younger and better educated people (Tippelt and Kupferschmitt, 2015; Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), 2015) which is in line with the structure of our sample. However, it can be assumed that our sample is still younger and better educated than the population of all Facebook members.

Measures

Frequency of exposure to and personal importance of different news sources. To gain an understanding for the political news use patterns of the participants, we measured frequency of exposure to and perceived importance of the media channels newspapers, magazines, television news, news Web sites, Facebook, Twitter, search engines, and the Web pages of e-mail providers. These outlets were selected based on research by Bernhard, et al. (2014) as well as Hölig and Hasebrink (2014b) which explored the most important news sources of German media users. Participants were asked “how often do you use the following media channels to receive political information” using a five-point Likert-type scale ranging from to 1 “never” to 5 “very often”. A second question asked: “Media channels can vary in their significance as sources for political information. How important are the following media channels for you personally to learn about political issues?” Responses were obtained using five-point Likert-type scales ranging from 1 “not at all important” to 5 “very important”.

Engagement with political news on Facebook. To investigate how Facebook members use the SNS as a source of political news, participants reported their intention to use Facebook as a source for political news, the amount of news organizations they follow, the perceived amount of political news posts on the News Feed and frequency of interaction with these political news posts.

To measure the intentional use of Facebook as a source of political news, we asked how often users specifically visit Facebook to find political information. Frequency of exposure was reported on a five-point Likert-type scale ranging from 1 “never” to 5 “very often.”

To investigate the amount of news organizations users follow, we posed two questions. First, we asked if they follow any site that provides political news on Facebook at all. If participants answered “yes”, they were asked to estimate the number of newspapers (e.g., sueddeutsche.de, faz.net), news magazines (e.g., spiegel.de, stern.de) and TV news casts (e.g., ARD Tagesschau, ZDF heute, n-tv), they follow on Facebook by typing a number in an open text field for each of these different types of news sources.

Further, participants were asked to estimate the percentage of the posts they usually encounter on their Facebook News Feed that are related to political information. This was answered using a slider bar which allowed all integer values between 0 percent and 100 percent as an answer. To measure news engagement, we wanted to know how many of these news posts on Facebook members read, asking “How often do you read political news posts on Facebook? Reading means just scrolling through the headlines even if you do not click or comment the post.” Moreover, we asked how often they like, comment or share a political news post and update their status after encountering a political news post. All of these items were measured using a five-point Likert scale ranging from 1 “never” to 5 “very often”.

News gratifications. Out of a large body of possible news gratifications within the literature, gratification dimensions were selected considering possible strengths and weaknesses of the specific types of political news sources the study compares: snack news on Facebook, newspapers, and television news. As mentioned before, we chose newspapers and television since they are the most important off-line sources to receive political information in Germany (Bernhard, et al., 2014). Participants were asked to estimate how well each of the three different news outlets fulfilled the functions described in the items using a five-point Likert-type scale from 1 “fully disagree” to 5 “fully agree”. The items that were used are summarized in Table 1.

As already mentioned, previous research demonstrates that especially newspapers and TV news serve the purpose of learning and gaining in-depth knowledge about political life (Lin, et al., 2005; Palmgreen, et al., 1980). To account for this function, we adapted three items for “balanced information” from the information quality dimensions suggested by Hagen (1995) that yielded a good internal consistency for all three media outlets (Cronbach’s α between .80 and .85).

Another gratification that is important for the exposure to TV news (McQuail, et al., 1972; Levy and Windahl, 1984) and online news (Zhang and Zhang, 2013; Diddi and LaRose, 2006) is “surveillance”, i.e., monitoring the events taking place in the social environment. For this dimension, we adapted and modified three items from Zhang and Zhang (2013). Again, the items showed a good internal consistency for all three media outlets (Cronbach’s α between .73 and .78).

Moreover, “social utility” has been found to be an essential gratification for TV news (Palmgreen, et al., 1980; Levy and Windahl, 1984) as well as online news sources (Kaye and Johnson, 2002). Specifically, “social utility” refers to the potential of news sources to provide topics for interpersonal conversation. This gratification was assessed by adapting two items from Kaye and Johnson (2002).

To account for the special features and assumed usage patterns of snack news on Facebook, we additionally included two items for the dimensions “entertainment” and “killing time” which describe important gratifications especially for online news sources (Althaus and Tewksbury, 2000; Diddi and LaRose, 2006; Dimmick, et al., 2004). These items were adapted from Lin, et al. (2005) and Althaus and Tewksbury (2000). Since both items correlate only moderately for all three media outlets (r between .39 and .49; p ≤ .01) and achieve only low coefficients of internal consistency (Cronbach’s α between .56 and .65) they were used as two separate variables for further analyses.

 

Table 1: News gratifications for Facebook, television, and newspapers.
Note: n = 422. Scale ranging from 1 = totally disagree to 5 = totally agree.
 Facebook
M (SD)
Television
M (SD)
Newspapers
M (SD)
Sources
Surveillance    
The news on Facebook / on television / in the newspaper help me to learn about the societal mood concerning current political issues.2.74
(1.09)
3.21
(1.02)
3.15
(1.14)
Zhang & Zhang (2013)
The news on Facebook / on television / in the newspaper help me to get immediate knowledge of big political events.3.02
(1.34)
3.73
(1.14)
2.82
(1.22)
Zhang & Zhang (2013)
The news on Facebook / on television / in the newspaper help me to get an overview of current political issues.2.56
(1.24)
4.05
(1.11)
3.59
(1.16)
Zhang & Zhang (2013)
Social utility    
The news on Facebook / on television / in the newspaper help me to take part in discussions about political issues.2.29
(1.12)
3.78
(1.05)
3.59
(1.16)
Kaye & Johnson (2002)
The news on Facebook / on television / in the newspaper help me to get information about political issues for personal conversations.2.42
(1.10)
3.53
(1.07)
3.47
(1.15)
Kaye & Johnson (2002)
Balanced information    
The news on Facebook / on television / in the newspaper help me to gain different perspectives on political issues.2.47
(1.17)
2.97
(1.10)
3.19
(1.14)
Hagen (1995)
I have the impression that news on Facebook / on television / in newspapers give provide exhaustive information about political issues.1.68
(0.90)
3.37
(1.08)
3.38
(1.17)
Hagen (1995)
I have the impression that news on Facebook / on television / in newspapers provide well-rounded information about political issues.1.74
(0.96)
3.30
(1.11)
3.28
(1.13)
Hagen (1995)
Entertainment    
The news on Facebook / on television / in newspapers are entertaining.2.92
(1.05)
2.87
(1.06)
2.69
(1.06)
Lin, et al. (2005)
Killing time    
I use the news on Facebook / on television / in newspapers to kill time.2.97
(1.29)
2.37
(1.15)
2.57
(1.25)
Althaus & Tewksbury (2000)

 

 

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Results

Frequency of exposure to and personal importance of different news sources

The results reveal that TV news and news Web sites are the most frequently used sources of political information within our sample (see Table 2). The third important channel for political information is Facebook followed by search engines and newspapers. Printed news magazines, the Web sites of e-mail providers and especially Twitter are rarely used as a news source by our respondents. A repeated measures ANOVA reveals that all media channels significantly differ in their frequency of usage, except for newspapers and search engines. For them, Bonferroni’s post-hoc test did not show a significant difference. Moreover, the usage frequency — in most cases — corresponds to the ascribed importance of the specific media outlets under consideration. Television news, news Web sites, and search engines are judged as important sources by a majority of the sample whereas Twitter and Web sites of e-mail providers are judged as rather unimportant sources. Facebook is used rather frequently as a source for political and the importance is also on a medium level. However, newspapers and news magazines are evaluated as personally important sources even though they are used with a rather low frequency. The repeated measures ANOVA for the importance of media channels as a source for political information indicates that all sources significantly differ, except for newspapers and news Web sites. Despite their difference in the intensity of usage, the personal importance is on the same level (post-hoc test: Bonferroni).

 

Table 2: Repeated measures ANOVA for frequency of usage and importance of different media channels.
Note: Superscripts indicate mean differences within the same column (Bonferroni post-hoc test); Frequency scale ranging from 1 = never to 5 = very often; importance scale ranging from 1 = not at all important to 5 = very important.
 Frequency of usage
M (SD)
Importance as a source for news
M (SD)
News Web sites3.56
(1.26)a
3.94
(1.01)a
TV news3.55
(1.10)b
4.40
(0.88)b
Facebook2.94
(1.38)c
2.46
(1.13)c
Newspapers2.54
(1.22)d
3.92
(1.10)a
Search engines2.63
(1.30)d
3.27
(1.19)d
News magazines2.01
(1.01)e
3.52
(1.02)e
E-mail provider Web sites1.70
(1.23)f
1.92
(0.97)f
Twitter1.36
(0.94)g
1.98
(1.12)g

 

Engagement with political news on Facebook

RQ1a asked whether people turned to Facebook with the explicit intention to find political information. The results show that users almost never visit the SNS for the purpose of receiving political information (M = 1.59; SD = 0.73). Further, results indicate that 43 percent of the participants follow at least one news source on Facebook. On average, users of our sample follow (M = 2.30) news sites (SD = 7.88). Of the participants who follow a news site, 78 percent follow at least one site of a newspaper, 75 percent at least one site of a news magazine, and 65 percent follow at least one site of a TV news cast. Concerning RQ1b, our participants estimate that on average about a fourth (24 percent) of the posts that they encounter on their Facebook News Feed are related to political information. Only five percent state that they never see such news posts on their Facebook News Feed. This finding shows that following a news site (only 43 percent of the sample do so) is no prerequisite for regularly encountering news content on Facebook. When it comes to the interaction with political snack news (RQ1c), the results reveal that these posts are read rather frequently (M = 3.53; SD = 1.18). However, the more active interaction is low, be it in terms of liking (M = 1.94; SD = 1.09), commenting (M = 1.37; SD = 0.79), sharing (M = 1.51; SD = 0.85), or updating their status (M = 1.40; SD = 0.78).

Gratifications obtained from political news content on Facebook

RQ2 asked for the gratifications people obtain from Facebook as a source of political information. The results show that overall, news posts on Facebook fulfill the typical functions of news sources on a moderate level (see Table 1). The gratification categories for which Facebook achieves the highest values are “killing time” (M = 2.97; SD = 1.29), “entertainment” (M = 2.92; SD = 1.05) and “surveillance” (M = 2.77; SD = 1.01) where means range slightly below the center of the scale. These gratifications are followed by “social utility” (M = 2.36; SD = 1.01). The least important gratification is “balanced information” (M = 1.96; SD = 0.86) which means that political news posts on Facebook are not valued as an important news source that provide well-rounded political information but rather as a means for distraction, entertainment, and monitoring of current events.

Reasons for gratifications obtained from political news content on Facebook

RQ3 asked about the relationship between reading snack size news and interacting with news posts on Facebook and the specific gratifications people obtain from using Facebook as a source for political news. This was tested using linear regression models for the five gratification dimensions as dependent variables. Reading, commenting, sharing, and liking served as predictor variables. Additionally, the models controlled for the influence of overall frequency of using Facebook as a source for political news and age as well as gender (see Table 3). The models explain between 16 percent (“entertainment”) and 50 percent (“surveillance”) of the variance of the dependent variables. Results indicate that for “surveillance”, “social utility”, and “escapism” the frequency of reading snack-size political news posts on Facebook is a strong predictor for obtained gratifications. Of the interaction activities under investigation the frequency of liking is related to one dependent variable, namely “surveillance”. “Entertainment” gratifications are related to the frequency of commenting political news posts but not to the frequency of reading such posts. “Balanced information” is related to both the frequency of reading and commenting snack-sized political news on Facebook. Here, however, commenting is a stronger predictor than reading as judged from standardized beta-coefficients.

 

Table 3: Multiple regression analyses for gratifications obtained from Facebook as a source for political news.
Notes: n = 421; *** p < .001; ** p < .01; * p < .05, a: 1 = male, 2 = female; b: 1 = never to 5 = very often
 SurveillanceSocial utilityBalanced informationEntertainmentEscapism
βββββ
Age-.09*-.08-.03-.09-.10*
Gendera.05.05.01.16**.07
Facebook exposureb.47***.44***.43***.29***.25***
Readingb.23***.16**.10*.03.19***
Likingb.12*.07.00.06.10
Commentingb.06.09.21***.12*-.05
Sharingb.02.02-.02-.05.01
Corr. R2.497.381.308.162.188

 

The niche of Facebook as a source for political news

To further compare Facebook with traditional news sources for political information and to investigate its position among other political news sources, we apply the theory of the niche. More specifically, we explore niche breadth (RQ4a), niche overlap (RQ4b), and competitive superiority (RQ4c) for Facebook in comparison to news on TV and in newspapers.

Results for the niche breadth, where the lowest possible value is 0 and the highest is 1, indicate that TV news (NB = .54) and newspapers (NB = .51) both have a comparably broad niche for the obtained gratifications under investigation. Nevertheless, the values indicate that both sources are not totally unspecialized since they are still far away from a value of 1. The niche breadth of political Facebook news content ranges considerably lower (NB = .40). This means that political news content on Facebook appears to serve a very specific function.

The niche overlap is calculated pairwise for two news sources. It can range from 0 to 4 in our study (the upper boundary of the scale minus the lower boundary) with low values indicating a high overlap and, thus, substitution. The value for political Facebook and TV news is NO = 1.50, for Facebook and newspapers NO = 1.54 and for TV and newspapers NO = 1.00. This means that Facebook has a lower overlap in obtained gratifications with TV news and newspapers than those two classical news media have with each other. Political Facebook news content can thus be regarded as rather complementary to TV news and newspapers while TV and newspapers are rather similar concerning the gratifications they fulfill.

In a further step, we investigated competitive superiority. For this purpose, the three news media under investigation were again compared pairwise for each of the five gratifications (i.e., “entertainment”, “killing time”, “social utility”, “surveillance”, and “balanced information”). The results for TV news and Facebook (see Table 4) show that TV news are superior to political news content on Facebook for “balanced information”, “surveillance”, and “social utility” purposes. No significant differences can be found for obtained “entertainment” gratifications. However, political Facebook news content is significantly superior to TV news when it comes to killing time.

 

Table 4: Competitive superiority for Facebook and TV.
Note: n = 421; *** p < .001; ** p < .01; * p < .05.
 FacebookTVt-values
Surveillance2.34**7.32**t(421) = -14.033
Balanced information1.39**7.67**t(421 )= -20.863
Social utility0.66**6.33**t(421) = 34.872
Entertainment1.201.11t(421) = 0.576
Killing time1.95**0.74**t(421) = 8.257

 

Comparing political Facebook news content and newspapers (see Table 5), the results indicate a competitive superiority of newspapers for “balanced information”, “social utility”, and “surveillance”. In contrast to that, political Facebook news content is evaluated significantly better for “entertainment” and “killing time” than newspapers.

 

Table 5: Competitive superiority for Facebook and newspapers.
Note: n = 421; *** p < .001; ** p < .01; * p < .05.
 FacebookNewspaperst-values
Surveillance3.36**5.67**t(421) = -6.299
Balanced information1.37**7.88**t(421) = -19.898
Social utility1.02**5.36**t(421) = -16.714
Entertainment1.46**1.02**t(421) = 2.939
Killing time1.78**0.99**t(421) = 5.038

 

The values for political TV news and newspapers (see Table 6) show that there are also significant differences between these two traditional news sources. Political TV news are superior in terms of their orientation value, “social utility”, and “entertainment” compared to newspapers. Moreover, there are no significant differences between political TV news and newspapers for “balanced information”. However, newspapers are superior to political TV news for “killing time”.

 

Table 6: Competitive superiority for TV and newspapers.
Note: n = 421; *** p < .001; ** p < .01; * p < .05.
 TVNewspaperst-values
Surveillance3.65**2.29**t(421) = 10.786
Balanced information3.823.30t(421) = 1.478
Social utility2.66*2.11*t(421) = 2.088
Entertainment1.30**0.90**t(421) = 2.837
Killing time0.85**1.24**t(421) = -2.869

 

 

++++++++++

Discussion and conclusion

The aim of our study was to understand the appeal of Facebook as a source for political news. It is the first study to investigate Facebook’s specific functions as a political news source and, thus, offers important insights in an era in which the SNS is increasingly gaining importance as a distribution channel for journalistic media content.

For a first insight into the possible benefits of using Facebook for political news, we were interested in the way users engage with the news posts they encounter within the SNS. Results show that it is very unusual to visit Facebook with the explicit intention to find political information. However, for our young and well-educated sample, the actual amount of political news received through Facebook is on a rather high level and appears to be comparable to the usage intensity of traditional sources if TV news and newspapers are considered on an aggregate level. Looking at the Facebook News Feed does not seem to be triggered by the wish to receive political information. However, users are aware that political news posts make up an important share of the content they encounter on their News Feed. According to the estimates of the participants in the present study, every fourth post contains political information. Only a small minority of respondents is never exposed to political news on Facebook. According to these findings, it is more likely that political news find their way to users via Facebook incidentally than that users actively seek for political news on SNS. They do not yet seem to actively use Facebook as a news outlet but are nevertheless aware of the fact that they receive political news content through Facebook.

Our results also revealed that users do not ignore these posts. It is very common to read political news posts even though commenting, liking or sharing are rather infrequent activities within our sample. These findings are in line with findings of the Reuters Digital News Survey for Germany: Results of that study reveal that only nine percent of German Internet users regard sharing and commenting as a motivation for using SNS as a source for news (Hölig and Hasebrink, 2016). This suggests that snacking (Costera Meijer and Groot Kormelink, 2014), the lean-back way of consuming bite-sized news pieces, might be a common way to engage with political news on SNS like Facebook. The assumption is supported by results concerning the gratifications that users obtain from Facebook news content: They value political Facebook news posts for being entertaining. Moreover, in the age of smartphones in which Facebook is always accessible, users see political news posts on Facebook as a useful way of killing time. Previous studies have shown that traditional online news are especially valued for their “surveillance” and “social utility” function (Lin, et al., 2005; Zhang and Zhang, 2013; Kaye and Johnson, 2002). For political news on Facebook these gratification dimensions, however, are not as important. Moreover, respondents do not consider political Facebook news posts to be offering balanced and well-rounded information. This supports the notion that much news content on Facebook is not actively and thoroughly processed and thought through but rather passively consumed without much attention.

Further, we addressed possible explanations for the specific gratifications users obtain from political news on Facebook. With this, we wanted to investigate whether it is rather the snack news character or the interactivity of political news posts on Facebook that shapes their gratifications in the eyes of the users. For “surveillance”, “social utility”, and “escapism” we found a strong impact of the passive reading of political snack news. For these gratification dimensions, the snack news character of Facebook news seems to be more important than interactivity. The bits and pieces of political news on Facebook help users to receive a basic overview about what is going on the world, provide ideas for off-line conversations and are used to kill time. Interactivity seems to be of less important. “Entertainment” gratifications are a rather special case. They are not related to the frequency of reading snack news on Facebook and only weakly related to commenting behaviors. Overall, the model does not explain “entertainment” very well which indicates that other important predictors are missing for this gratification dimension. For “balanced information” commenting behaviors are more important than passive reading of snack news. Users who more frequently engage in discussion about political news on Facebook more strongly experience the SNS as offering a well-rounded and balanced view about political topics. However, the fact that most users hardly ever comment political news posts on Facebook supports the conclusion that it is especially the snack news format — and not the possibility to interact with news — that explains most of the appeal of Facebook as a source for political news.

In order to more specifically determine Facebook’s role in users’ information repertoires, we applied the theory of the niche (Dimmick, 2003) to compare gratifications obtained from political Facebook news content to traditional news outlets. Results show that Facebook as a source of political news has only a narrow niche and little overlap with political TV news and newspapers. This means that political Facebook news content at the moment serves a very specific purpose that appears to be complimentary to other news sources instead of being able to replacing them in the eyes of most users. Traditional news media are valued for “surveillance”, “social utility” and “balanced information” gratifications. With respect to these gratifications, TV and newspapers news are superior to political Facebook news. Facebook’s niche is restricted to “entertainment” and “killing time”. However, concerning these dimensions, political Facebook news posts are superior to traditional news media outlets.

These results may appear disappointing from the perspective of news organizations that hope to reach an interested and engaged audience for their political news content by distributing it via Facebook (Ju, et al., 2014; Kümpel, et al., 2015). It may also appear as a defeat for Facebook’s strategists pushing the SNS in the direction of becoming an important news outlet (Solon, 2016). However, from a societal point of view these findings are not that disappointing. Rather, they demonstrate that political news posts on Facebook complement other news outlets and can contribute to the distribution of political information. Contrary to other news sources, political Facebook news posts are seen as an attractive way to be entertained and kill time. Users who do not have the intention to receive political news in a given situation might this way incidentally come in contact with political news content that they otherwise might not have been exposed to at all. Therefore, Facebook has great potential to accidentally expose a large audience with political news.

When it comes to actual informational needs like learning, gaining knowledge, or finding topics to talk about, however, people still rely on traditional news sources for political information. Based on our findings, Facebook is not yet regarded as a sufficient replacement for traditional news media, but rather complements news exposure through traditional outlets. But, our results have also documented that many users acquire some political news via the SNS. This appears to be a relatively new and increasing trend (Gottfried and Shearer, 2016; Hölig and Hasebrink, 2016). It, thus, seems plausible that many users are simply accustomed to viewing Facebook as a political news outlet. They might still mainly think of Facebook as a social networking service that helps them stay in touch with their personal contacts and additionally offers entertainment and distraction. Over time, this might change. If users continuously receive political news content through Facebook they might view the SNS as an important element of their information repertoire. Seen against this light, the present findings are just a snapshot in time. Future research will have to accompany current changes in the information technology landscape by repeatedly assessing gratifications obtained from different news outlets. In due time, a growing number of users might regard Facebook as a valuable source of political information and might, then, also be more easily ready to use it as a replacement of other news outlets (Müller, et al., 2016). If this is the case, it will, however, become increasingly important that users learn to actively engage with political news content on Facebook instead of just “snacking” it. Facebook, as well as news organizations that use Facebook as a distribution channel, should be interested in conveying this message to their users.

Limitations and future research

The valuable findings notwithstanding, our study has some limitations that have to be discussed. First, we have to consider that out sample is rather young and highly educated. Age and education might be biasing the results since it can be assumed that older users and those with a lower level of education are using Facebook differently to receive political information. More precisely, older users are probably less frequently exposed to Facebook. Users with a lower level of education are not likely to receive as many political news posts as our sample because it is less probable that they have liked news organizations on Facebook and their friends’ networks are less likely to share news content. Further studies investigating a more heterogeneous sample are therefore necessary in order to fully understand the appeal of Facebook as a source for political news.

Additionally, the present findings are based on self-reported data. For instance, individuals estimated the percentage of political news posts within the News Feed. It was not possible to validate these data using actual profile data from Facebook. Such information is hardly accessible from Facebook and it is also not ethically unproblematic to obtain because it would require deep insights into respondents’ privacy. It can be argued that participants in this study might have tended to overestimate the share of political news within their News Feed. Participants may have recognized that the focus of the questionnaire was on political information seeking. In order to appear more informed as they were in reality they may have overestimated the exposure to political news posts. However, in another study of a more diverse sample, we found even higher estimates of how many posts within the Facebook News Feed contain news content (Müller, et al., 2016). Nevertheless, this caveat should encourage future research to validate self-report data with objective measures from Facebook tracking data whenever possible.

Another suggestion for future research is to compare Facebook with other online news sources. For example, news Web sites have shown to be an outlet which is used frequently to perceive political news and is also very important as a source for political news. Thus, comparing the niche of Facebook and news Web sites would be a valuable addition to our study.

Despite these limitations, the present study has shed first light on the question how Facebook is used and perceived as a source of political information. This research represents only a first step in the inquiry of a SNS as an outlet of political information that may be actively sought or accidently encountered. With the increase and widespread of news content on SNS, future research on information exposure, learning, and opinion formation will definitely have to consider the role of SNS. Moreover, SNS are only just at the beginning of being used as news outlets for political information. Users’ perceptions and uses of SNS like Facebook as important channels to obtain political information will probably be object to further change in the future. It is essential for the communication discipline to accompany these processes with continuous research. End of article

 

About the authors

Svenja Schäfer is a research assistant at the Department of Communication at Johannes Gutenberg University, Mainz, Germany. Her research interests include digital news consumption and their effects on (the perception of) knowledge and online selective exposure.
Send correspondence to: svenja [dot] schaefer [at] uni-mainz [dot] de

Michael Sülflow is a research assistant at the Department of Communication at Johannes Gutenberg University, Mainz, Germany. His research interest include political communication as well as contents and effects of nonverbal communication.
E-mail: michael [dot] suelflow [at] uni-mainz [dot] de

Philipp Müller is postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Communication at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, Germany. His research interests include media change, media innovations, media effects on social/national identity, presumed media influence, and political communication.
E-mail: philipp [dot] mueller [at] uni-mainz [dot] de

 

Acknowledgments

This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial, or not-for-profit sectors.

 

Notes

1. Mitchell and Page, 2015, p. 12.

2. Shao, 2009, p. 11.

3. Lin, et al., 2005, p. 227.

4. Zhang and Zhang, 2013, p. 2,716.

5. For an overview of the ecological niche, see, for example, Arnaud Pocheville, 2015. “The ecological niche: History and recent controversies,” In: Thomas Heams, Philippe Huneman, Guillaume Lecointre, and Marc Silberstein (editors). Handbook of evolutionary thinking in the sciences. Dordrecht: Springer Science+Business Media, pp. 547–586, doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/978-94-017-9014-7_26, accessed 17 March 2016.

6. Dimmick, et al., 2000, p. 231.

7. Dimmick, et al., 2000, p. 232.

8. Dimmick, et al., 2000, p. 233.

 

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Editorial history

Received 6 February 2017; revised 16 March 2017; accepted 20 March 2017.


Copyright © 2017, Svenja Schäfer, Michael Sülflow, and Philipp Müller.

The special taste of snack news: An application of niche theory to understand the appeal of Facebook as a source for political news
by Svenja Schäfer, Michael Sülflow, and Philipp Müller.
First Monday, Volume 22, Number 4 - 3 April 2017
http://www.firstmonday.dk/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/7431/6088
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v22i4.7431





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