Breaking news: How push notifications alter the fourth estate
First Monday

Breaking news: How push notifications alter the fourth estate by Madelyn Rose Sanfilippo and Yafit Lev-Aretz

In the face of media mistrust and increasing scrutiny over fake news, the fourth estate traditional power-check functions, as well as its esteem, are in jeopardy. Changes in news reporting and dissemination, including social media and new technologies have greatly reshaped the information environments of an informed electorate within American democracy. While much scholarly progress has been made in studying the socio-political impact of social media, similar critical attention has not been given to some of the technological changes in news dissemination. Research has begun to analyze attitudinal changes, as well as documented general information-saturation culture and online civility. It is not clear if these are related within the context of breaking news, raising distinct research questions, including: How have objectivity and sentiment changed in media representations over time? How have push notifications, as an increasingly popular and exemplar technological change in news dissemination, influenced these representations? This paper addresses these questions by exploring a case comparison between representations of two historically parallel breaking news stories, U.S. President Nixon firing special prosecutor Archibald Cox in 1973 and President Trump firing FBI Director James Comey in 2017, through computational textual analysis. While headlines and push notifications vary significantly by news providers, push notifications are similar across platforms in distinguishing characteristics such as emotionally loaded and subjective language. Both of these are defining elements of fake and deceptive news and may potentially account for some media distrust recently.


Case study




Recent events, including the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, brought to light new, and disturbing, trends surrounding changes to the media environment that are destabilizing to the fourth estate: fake news; de-legitimization of journalism; and, new media echo chambers (Hanitzsch and Vos, 2016; Jacobson, et al., 2016). Yet, a number of other developments, producing less obvious public outrage, concurrently affected the media environment: push notifications and social consumption (Gil de Zúñiga, et al., 2012; Goode, 2009). Specifically, push notifications have changed the world of mobile applications. Unlike other media, where users must actively seek information, products, or services, mobile push notifications are served to users’ screens, alerting them to vital information, even when they do not immediately access a given app (Stănescu, 2015). The result is an environment in which these new, often interruptive, technologies quietly alter consumption, engagement, and context of political information acquisition, concurrent with more obvious and polarizing changes. These technologies raise questions, as of yet unanswered, about how these changes are related and what they mean for an informed electorate.

Similar changes in access to, dissemination of, and context and quality of news have been the subject of a growing body of academic literature (e.g., Costera Meijer and Bijleveld, 2016; Couldry, et al., 2007; Strömbäck, et al., 2016; Weaver and Willnat, 2016). However, exploration of the very significant changes in news distribution via push notifications and breaking news, as well as their relationships to media trust, moral panic, and perceptions of media, has been extremely limited.

News outlets increasingly capitalize on the potential of push notifications to drive engagement and enhance readership. Such changes in news reporting and consumption offer a new, largely overlooked, research perspective into the competing narratives about the definition of news, their impact on political participation, entrenchment of political views, ubiquity of media environments, and anxiety in media consumption. Situated within discussions on fake news, how new technologies have changed journalism, and the nature of news consumption overall, this paper and a larger ongoing empirical project seek to explore: 1) how push notifications and online “breaking news” phenomenon differ from traditional news reporting; 2) relationships between objectivity in journalism, reader attitude and trust; and, 3) what changes in news reporting and dissemination mean for participatory politics and its relationship to the fourth estate. Admittedly, these questions are situated at a very high level and virtually impossible to address in a single empirical analysis. Yet, within these general inquiries lay questions that can be more closely explored and which provide an effective starting point for on the impact of push and of breaking news representations in the current media environment. Specifically, this article considers two questions: How have objectivity and sentiment changed in media representations over time? How have new forms of dissemination, such as push notifications, influenced these representations?

This paper illustrates patterns and key insights on these two themes through a case study, comparing reporting on U.S. President Nixon firing Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox in 1973 to the recent firing of FBI Director James Comey by President Trump. Comparing representation within these two factually similar events, the analysis uncovers differences associated with the objectivity, emotional framing, and style of breaking news story framing within headlines and push notifications.




The importance of an informed electorate has been recognized historically (Jefferson, 2009) and within scholarly literature (e.g., Bullock, 2011), emphasizing the importance of transparency and journalism in informing the public to support a functional democracy (Diamond, 2014; Goode, 2009; Hanitzsch and Vos, 2016). Roles of the fourth estate within a system of checks and balances, as well as in supporting participatory politics, are constantly evolving (e.g., Benkler, 2013; Felle, 2016) and have received considerable scrutiny.

The fourth estate, as an independent press which holds other institutions accountable and pushes for social pluralism, has been affected significantly by technological change (Newman, et al., 2012). Synergy between fourth estate and the proposed fifth estate of networked, non-institutional and social media contribute to the evolution of legacy news practice (Newman, et al., 2012). Changes in news and media, associated with technology, and interactions between new and traditional media also raise tensions regarding media legitimacy, trust, and consumption.

Technological developments, and especially those related to information and communication technologies, have reconfigured traditional media in two significant ways. First, reproduction and distribution costs have decreased significantly. The content of a newspaper, for instance, does not need to be printed and distributed as a hard copy. Legacy media have both enjoyed and suffered reduced costs of production and dissemination: while it economized on production and dissemination costs, it had to face competition from decentralized information producers (Benkler, 2013). Second, technology has opened the media to new distribution channels and media. Specifically, the spread of mobile devices and digital network created a new playing field for news outlets. Notwithstanding evidence of early reluctance towards news consumption via mobile devices (Westlund, 2007) mobile news publishing has become a dominant avenue for news distribution, outstripping desktop news access in many countries (Newman, et al., 2017). Allowing users to stay informed without actively seeking information, mobile push notifications have multiplied significantly in the last year, especially in the U.S. (Newman, et al., 2017).

In 1997, when e-mail-push technology was introduced and celebrated as a technological revolution, push appeared to be a suitable solution to slow connectivity at that time. Users no longer needed to search for information and then wait; they could simply have information that they were interested in delivered to their mailbox (Lasica, 1997). In fact, people found the concept of a “push” so appealing that several news providers sought to make push even more “pushy” by offering paid subscription services for breaking news SMS alerts (Fidalgo, 2009). Since then, much has changed. Today, virtually all major news providers have popular mobile apps that incorporate customizable mobile push notifications.

Pushed news alerts place their receivers in a somewhat passive state. Users often have no control over the time of a push or the number of alerts, though recently some apps have introduced the option to turn off night-time notifications. Ahonen (2008) referred to mobile mass media as “the only always-on mass media.” Indeed, with news content pushed to users’ phones at any time, mobile mass media is “the only media that can reach us in our sleep.” Users can still exercise some control over the content of notifications pushed to them, commonly by customizing notifications through the setting menu of a relevant news app. However, when individuals are presented with too many choices they often prefer that the choice be made for them, maintaining default settings (Ariely, 2008); personalized news alerts are no different. Most readers refrain from configuring their push diet, opening up a fertile market for news alerts personalization (Newman, 2016). For example, the New York Times effectively targeted interested users by sending a push notification about Pizzagate only to those users who had read one of the Pizzagate stories (Renner, 2016).

The complexity of distribution for news generally, beyond these specifics of push notifications, grow with technological innovation (Pavlik, 2000). As news outlets adopted new digital strategies, including push notifications (Sheller, 2015), engagement has increased among many demographics and is more easily monitored. Yet, this gamification of news has risks and consequences, including filter bubbles and politicization, in part due to personalization (Conill and Karlsson, 2016). In order to garner more attention and engage readers, or users, modes of distribution and framing of content have changed in order to take advantage of click bait tendencies (Chen, et al., 2015). These subtle manipulations are often misleading and generate outrage, both about partisan issues or implications, and about the practice itself.

There is a long history of moral panics developing due to media coverage, regardless of new technologies, as documented by Furedi (2016). Sensationalism, beyond conjuring moral outrage, in press coverage is also an entrenched, historical vein in journalism, not only dating back to yellow journalism around the turn of the twentieth century (Emery, 1972), but rather to the Acta Dicta of ancient Rome (Stephens, 2007). In this sense, there is an established history of framing information and news. This history is independent of changes to adapt to new technologies and draw attention on social media, that is sometimes problematic, as when associated with scandals around news and media, such as those that emphasize deception (Rubin, et al., 2015). Journalism scholarship has long recognized rhetorical framing and has established methods of news framing analysis (e.g., D’Angelo and Kuypers, 2010), indicating that social construction is an integral part of news communication. While true impartiality is often an elusive objective, extreme editorial bias has consequences.

Coverage of particular stories is often framed uniquely for each publication, in ways that often reflect target audiences. Papers in the U.K., for example, represent racist trolls and cyberbullies in very different ways, downplaying the seriousness of or vilifying perpetrators in part based on the age, diversity, and population density of their audiences (Bishop, 2014). This specific study has implications for current discussions around emerging nationalist narratives in far-right media outlets, in comparison to centrist sources, around whom these frames appeal.

Despite technological and economic changes in media dissemination and consumption, scandals, mistrust, and journalistic practice have important threads of continuity over time. The impact of this complexity of how changes and context, as well as established norms and strategies, on the content of news is relatively unexplored. The following case study illustrates what has changed and segues to a discussion of what should be systematically explored in order to understand relationships between fake news and new technologies, as well as the destabilization of the fourth estate and its potential implications for democratic participation.




Mobile push notifications collected in May 2017 from all U.S.-based news apps with original content in either English or Spanish as listed within the top 100 news apps within the Apple App Store or for Google Play, as well as news aggregation services, such as Apple News, provide a large data set from which to explore many of the high-level questions posed earlier in this paper. Yet, the set also presents an interesting case study for a more specific analysis. Nine days into that sample, President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, triggering a number of comparisons to President Richard Nixon’s behavior during the Watergate scandal and prompting an outpouring of stories and discussions within new and traditional media, including push notifications collected in the sample.

This study specifically includes comparisons between headlines from articles published in six major newspapers that were most prominent in 1973 and current article headlines and push notifications. The analysis centers on stories within the first week following the parallel instances in which President Nixon fired special prosecutor Archibald Cox and President Trump fired FBI Director Comey, to emphasize initial representations and exclude questions and variation associated with long tails in a hypothetically unbounded sample. Direct comparisons are not made between print articles from 1973 and push notifications from 2017, given the differences in technologies, transmission, and intent.

While this sub-sample is small, in terms of the number of headlines and push notifications examined, it is extremely useful in beginning to address specific questions and in raising a number of propositions to be later examined with a larger sample and within other contexts. Specifically, this paper addresses: (1) how objectivity, fairness, and balance in news coverage differs between 1973 and 2017, exploring current frames of a major story as a potential to affect trust and the strength of the fourth estate, given social expectations; and, (2) how push notifications, as an intrusive new technology, change representations in comparison to more traditional headline representations.

In order to conduct general computational linguistic analysis and specific sentiment analysis, developer protocols were adopted to employ NVivo, RTextTools in R, and IBM Watson Tone Analyzer to respectively assess word choice and prevalence, polarity, and objectivity, and emotion and language style over the plain text of headlines and push notifications sampled. No methodological innovations were made. Complete individual headlines and push notifications were analyzed independently as units of analysis for exploration of sentiment, as well as jointly by news agency, to explore patterns in reporting.



Case study

A 9:40 pm ET push, on Tuesday, 9 May 2017, via Apple News, succinctly made the often historical comparison to the biggest news story from the time period sampled in: “‘This is Nixonian’: Democrats renew calls for special counsel to handle FBI’s Russia probe after Comey’s firing.” This push pointedly contextualized an ideal preliminary case study to explore many of the issues around push notifications, trust, the fourth estate, and fake news sensationalism, pertaining to the Washington Post article from the same day, “Democrats hate James Comey. But they hate the fact Trump fired him even more.”

A comparison of U.S. newspaper headlines relating to President Nixon firing special prosecutor Archibald Cox (available from ProQuest Historical Newspaper Archives) and President Trump firing FBI Director James Comey might be expected to have relatively similar language, when controlling for names and dates. Using this comparison as a lens through which to explore how communication about breaking news has changed, it is possible to see how differences develop even within the same means of dissemination. Headlines communicate similar events differently with time, as presented in Table 1, even within the same six newspapers: Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post.


Headline comparison across six major newspapers
Table 1: Headline comparison across six major newspapers [1].


Not only were there significantly more articles within the first week, which is possibly a function of changing technologies and means of consumption affecting traditional and legacy modes of communication, as well, but the 2017 headlines were less objective, negative with greater statistical confidence, and more emotional than those from 1973. However, even if objectivity and neutral attitudes were reflected, the overwhelming number of articles from major news organizations, not to mention other sources, risks confusion and information overload.

Differences in actual word choice do more to reveal the increasingly partisan nature of communication around these events. While, terms such as “inquiry,” “investigation,” and “impeachment” occurred with similar frequency, they were coupled with words that reveal a sharp divide on whether the incident raises concern about justice or about politics. “Democrat” occurred seven times more frequently in recent headlines, than in the historical set, and “Republicans” nine times more often. In contrast, “just” and “justice” are twice as likely to appear in a headline about the Saturday Night Massacre (20 October 1973), then in a given headline about President Trump firing FBI Director Comey. This reflects a trend from objective justice to subjective politics that echoes anecdotal discussions and previous research surrounding media bias (Entman, 2007).

While the language style employed is analytical in nature for both sets of headlines, as would be expected in serious journalism, it is notable that there is an increase in statistical confidence in the analytical style with time. This likely reflects the nature of spectacle around political scandals and public expectations for media deconstruction of “gate”-level scandals, rather than just the facts. Furthermore, the likelihood that the headlines are tentative in the latter case may reflect the tendency for reporting to get ahead of itself under the pressure of a competitive media environment. New technologies and social demands lead to increasingly little lag time between events and news coverage. While this will be explored within the larger study, with respect to modes of communication (articles, tweets, and push notifications), comparisons between push notifications and headlines within the same sample of articles relative to President Trump firing FBI Director Comey provide further support for this interpretation.

Parallel computational linguistic and sentiment analysis of push notifications and online article headlines relative to the same articles, as summarized in Table 2, illustrate that mode of article dissemination impacts content. Even when pertaining to the same article, the negative language employed in push notifications is not only more subjective, angry, and tentative, in the rush to provide news to users in advance of competitors, but also introduces elements of fear into the message.


Table 2: Comparison of push notifications to article headlines.
Mode of communication word choice and prevalence [2]Online article headlines
Push notifications
Polarity [3]negative (-0.639)negative (-0.694)
Objectivity [3]weak subjectivesubjective
Emotion [4]<.5 = not likely present
>.5 = likely present
>.75 = very likely present
Anger     0.51 (LIKELY)
Disgust     0.54 (LIKELY)
Fear     0.44 (UNLIKELY)
Joy     0.04 (UNLIKELY)
Sadness     0.49 (UNLIKELY)
<.5 = not likely present
>.5 = likely present
>.75 = very likely present
Anger     0.82 (LIKELY)
Disgust     0.55 (LIKELY)
Fear     0.59 (LIKELY)
Joy     0.11 (UNLIKELY)
Sadness     0.48 (UNLIKELY)
Language style [4] Analytical     0.69 (LIKELY)
Confident     0.00 (UNLIKELY)
Tentative     0.53 (LIKELY)
Analytical     0.70 (LIKELY)
Confident     0.00 (UNLIKELY)
Tentative     0.88 (LIKELY)





These results illustrate increasing volumes of news coverage, as well as decreasing certainty in content and increasing sentiment in content. Simultaneous with moves toward more sensational language and abrupt interruptions of day to day activities with news through push notification, anxiety is increasing (Barthel and Mitchell, 2017; Westermann, et al., 2015). A possible interpretation is that current media mistrust, distrust, and disdain is partly driven by these changes, which make mainstream media look and sound a lot like fake news. This hypothesis warrants empirical assessment.

It is not to say that these changes are necessarily movement in the wrong direction, from a normative sense, but rather than with the benefit of increasing consumption and social sharing, comes the risk of similarities to fake news, which is a distinct concept, divisible into multiple types, some of which resemble sensationally framed, but mainstream and credible news. As editors employ less formal language in push notification and embrace notifications through Facebook, rather than independent forms of transmission, there is also increasing overlap between clickbait and legitimate stories.

While this study does not differentiate between real and fake or assess trust or perceptions of headlines or push notifications, it does reveal subtle shifts away from steadfastly objective, balanced, and unemotional ideals about journalism that held true even in reporting contentious and outrage-provoking stories of the past, such as President Nixon firing Archibald Cox. This is true not only of new technologies, like push notifications, which editors assert to be less formal, but also in traditional dissemination forms such as printed stories in the New York Times or the Washington Post. A possible implication is that changes resulting from the adoption and integration of new technologies into journalistic practices have also affected practices surrounding legacy technologies, which is further supported by changes in when news stories are disseminated. It is also certainly likely that other factors are involved, such as the expectations of increased productivity and output from increasingly fewer journalists; standards and expectations change, which is in tension with expectations about journalism and its role in democratic society.

Applications of sentiment analysis and computational linguistics to explore representations of news stories, in terms of objectivity, fairness, balance, and emotional attitudes, also have implications for future studies of push notifications and representations of breaking news. One way to improve upon textual analysis of news items themselves is to examine the credibility and conflicting viewpoints within discussion and sharing networks around the items (Jin, et al., 2016). This is consistent with work that illustrates people are more likely to believe fake stories that favor their preferred ideology or candidate (Allcott and Gentzkow, 2017), as well as documentation of ideological filter bubbles on social media (Pariser, 2011). Textual analysis has the potential to produce broadly applicable and more actionable insights when explored in concert with larger questions about representations, demonstrating how balance in terms of attitude and balance in terms of coverage affect the information environments of the electorate.

When similar methods are applied to this small sample of real news headlines and notifications, there are distinct similarities between increasingly less formal socially shared news and fake news, particularly with push notifications. It is thus intuitive that these changes in communication from reputable journalistic sources contribute to the confusion surrounding what is trustworthy (e.g., Marchi, 2012). An implication is the potential for destabilization of the fourth estate, all at a time when it is extremely critical given the aversion to ethical standards, transparency, and accountability of some elected officials. These same officials actively contribute to the confusion by bemoaning fake news and cloud public perception of news providers, while tacitly accepting and benefiting from less public sources of ambiguity, such as personalization and clickbait generation, due to large social data sets around political issues.




As described within the case study and subsequent discussion, news headlines communicated two events differently within the same six newspapers examined. In addition to a significantly higher number of news articles, which can be attributed to technological changes, the 2017 headlines are less objective, negative with greater statistical confidence, and more emotional than their 1973 counterparts. Differences in word choice further reveal the partisan nature of communication around these events, implying a growing shift from objective justice to subjective politics in the media. Alongside a more analytical reporting style, the 2017 headlines also exhibited more tentative quality, probably due to the shrinking lag time between events and news coverage in the age of rapidly breaking news. Computational linguistic and sentiment analysis of the 2017 online article headlines and push notifications further highlight the relationship between news dissemination mode and actual content. The negative language choice in push notifications is not only more subjective, angry, and tentative, then the one of online news headlines but also introduces elements of fear into an already intrusive form of news consumption.

While only one comparison, there are a number of key insights. First, looking at the differences in headlines about Nixon and Trump, language is noticeably more subjective, emotional, and tentative. While different models and tools for sentiment analysis may provide different specific metrics, based on the data, distributions on these factor consistently favor greater neutrality in historical headlines, even on a sensational story like the Saturday Night Massacre, in comparison to recent rhetoric. The implication is that with less formal and non-neutral language, attention may be gained, but ambiguity about differences between reliable news and fake news increases. A proposition, to be explored in future empirical work, is that media distrust is influenced by increased sensationalism in coverage and similarities between representations of stories in mainstream and fake or deceptive purveyors.

Second, information overload, the intrusiveness of push notifications, and increasing personalization of news content frames and consumption represent dramatic changes to individuals’ information grounds and the legitimacy of the fourth estate. Not only are perceptions of legitimacy of the fourth estate overall, as well as of specific news organizations, growing more hyper-partisan (Barthel and Mitchell, 2017), but ambiguity between what is real and what is fake, given social consumption and new, more informal, norms of journalism dissemination and communication confuse the electorate and destabilize democratic participation. This is particularly true when articles and notifications address the legitimacy of other democratic institutions or threats to them, such as voting integrity.

This work is only a preliminary attempt to explore changes in communication and trust, the fourth estate, and technology and fake news. Based on this case and situated within existing literate are a number of research questions to explore in future work, including: how modes of dissemination impact content; how changes in dissemination, access, and consumption impact trust, information overload, and misinformation; why intrusive dissemination may exacerbate problems surrounding fake news; and, what are appropriate interventions? Overall, this project will examine how online breaking news and push notifications have affected news coverage and consumption, with an emphasis both on differences by communication technology mode and historical comparisons, exploring analogous changes, such as the impact of cable news, and historical coverage of analogous events. Furthermore, exploring the relationships between these factors and fake news will be touched on as with pushes and errors. When pushes include errors that are not mended via pushes, they disseminate fake news. Existing research on fake news from a cognitive bias perspective, can provide further insights into how push technology has affected the reputation of the fourth estate. End of article


About the authors

Madelyn Rose Sanfilippo is as a postdoctoral Research Scholar at the Information Law Institute at New York University. Her research fundamentally addresses legal, social, and political issues surrounding information and information technology access, applying a social informatics perspective, particularly as it relates to unequal outcomes regarding interactions between policies, institutions, and information. Current projects examine these relationships with respect to knowledge management, data science, and artificial intelligence. She studied at the University of Wisconsin, Madison as an undergraduate and completed her master’s and doctoral studies in Information Science at Indiana University, Bloomington’s School of Informatics and Computing.
Send comments to: mrs771 [at] nyu [dot] edu

Yafit Lev-Aretz is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Information Law Institute and an adjunct professor at the Media, Culture, and Communications Department at New York University. As the digital environment constantly evolves, Yafit studies self-regulatory regimes set by private entities and the legal vacuum they create. She is especially interested in the growing use of algorithmic decision-making, choice architecture in the age of big data, and the ethical challenges posed by machine learning and artificially intelligent systems. Her research also highlights the legal treatment of beneficial uses of data, such as data philanthropy and the data for good movement, striving to strike a delicate balance between privacy protection and competing values. Previously, Yafit was an intellectual property fellow at the Kernochan Center for the Law, Media, and the Arts at Columbia University, where she analyzed online practices from copyright and trademark law perspectives. Yafit holds an SJD from the University of Pennsylvania Law School, an LLM from Columbia Law School, and an LLB from Bar-Ilan University in Israel.
E-mail: yla212 [at] nyu [dot] edu



We would like to thank all those have provided valuable feedback and constructive criticisms throughout this project, including: our colleagues at the Information Law Institute, as well as members of the Privacy Research Group at New York University School of Law; the fellows and affiliates at Data & Society who kindly invited us to workshop this paper, and First Monday’s anonymous reviewers. We sincerely appreciate your comments and recognize your contributions in improving this paper and project.



1. This reflects articles in the Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post.

2. Analyzed within NVivo.

3. Analyzed with RTextTools in R.

4. Analyzed with IBM Watson Tone Analyzer.



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Editorial history

Received 21 August 2017; revised 12 October 2017; accepted 26 October 2017.

Creative Commons License
“Breaking news: How push notifications alter the fourth estate” by Madelyn Rose Sanfilippo and Yafit Lev-Aretz is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Breaking news: How push notifications alter the fourth estate
by Madelyn Rose Sanfilippo and Yafit Lev-Aretz.
First Monday, Volume 22, Number 11 - 6 November 2017

A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

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