Journalism professor discusses new book on significance of news aggregation

Professor Mark Coddington. Photo courtesy of Washington and Lee University website.

Professor Mark Coddington. Photo courtesy of Washington and Lee University website.

Grace Mamon

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Is news aggregation threatening the credibility of journalism?

That’s the question Mark Coddington, an assistant professor of journalism and mass communications, addressed in his new book, “Aggregating the News: Secondhand Knowledge and the Erosion of Journalistic Authority.”

Columbia University Press published Coddington’s book in 2019, which he explores the concept of aggregated news: news that has been taken from its original source and repackaged into an abbreviated form.

Coddington spent five weeks researching the aggregation processes of five different news organizations for his book, he said at his lecture at the Leyburn Library Book Nook on January 27.

He said that all news organizations have news aggregation teams, even elite ones. The New York Times, for example, sends out emails with aggregated versions of their own work.

“The reason they’re doing it is to preempt other people doing it to them,” Coddington said. “Aggregation is that much of a fact of life on the internet.”

Other examples of news aggregators include Google News, Apple News, the Skimm newsletter and news articles that are rewrites of other news articles on the internet.

In order to explain why news aggregation happens, Coddington introduced what he called the “holy trinity” of journalism: observation, interviews and documents.

He said aggregators still rely on these three things, but they don’t have the same access as big-name publications. In lieu of independent verification, they simply evaluate the credibility of already published stories and pull from them.

“It’s the same raw material,” he said. “It’s just defined by being further removed.”

What does this mean for journalism? Coddington pointed out three outcomes of news aggregation: uncertainty, professional inferiority and eroded authority.

However, Coddington said he believes journalism will survive because the original reporting must be done in the first place for aggregators to do their job.

“The value [of journalism] is not gone, but I do think it’s possible that inadvertently, aggregation could choke it out,” he said in an interview after the talk.

Coddington answered questions from professors and students in attendance after the talk. Kevin Finch, assistant professor of journalism and mass communications, asked about the legal consequences for news aggregators.

“If the original publication gets sued for getting something wrong, do [aggregators] go down with the ship?” he asked.

Coddington said yes, identifying the issue as one of the major risks that news aggregators take by relying on another publication’s credibility.

University Registrar Scott Dittman asked about the value of news aggregators that pull from many different sources and identify potential biases. He said he thinks it’s informative when original sources are categorized this way.

“We tend to think of bias or slant as the fundamental dimension through which to read news, but this is dwarfed by the question of, ‘How was this put together?’” Coddington said.

But Coddington said he’s optimistic about the future of media, especially with subscription-based models that help promote original reporting.

“If I’m paying for news, I’m going to go to those sources,” he said. “I’ve got skin in the game. I’m paying for them to do really good work so that’s what I’m going to read. No one is going to pay for aggregation. What people really want to pay for is big important news that they can’t get anywhere else.”