Incidental exposure to online news

Authors


Abstract

News readership is shifting to the Internet because of accessibility, inexpensive technology, and free content. The prevalence of news on the Web provides opportunities for people to come across news in an incidental way as a byproduct of their online activities.

This paper presents findings related to incidental exposure to online news from a study on information behavior of news readers. Erdelez's (2004) Information Encountering model guided the mixed method study, which consisted of two phases. The first phase involved the analysis of a web survey with 148 participants recruited through the website of a local newspaper. Respondents who demonstrated an awareness of their incidental exposure to online news were selected for the second phase. In the second, qualitative phase, the researcher interviewed 20 respondents using critical incident, explication interview, and think-aloud techniques. This paper presents findings from the second phase focusing on four main areas: the respondents' perception of incidental exposure to online news, the frequency of these experiences, the characteristics of the environment where they take place, and the respondents' feelings associated with this behavior. The study indicates that incidental exposure to online news is becoming a major way for some respondents to get informed about news events. Respondents' perceptions of incidental exposure to online news are grouped into three contexts: news reading, non-news reading, and Internet in general. The majority of respondents stated that they have positive feelings about incidental exposure to online news.

INTRODUCTION

The Internet technologies and online dissemination of news are changing the news reading habits and information behavior of readers. News reading is more deeply embedded in people's daily lives than it has been at any previous time, thanks to wireless Internet, mobile technology, and portable devices. According to Purcell et al. (2010), on a typical day, 92% of Americans access news in multiple formats. Instead of reading a paper copy of the local newspaper or watching the scheduled evening news, people increasingly turn to the Internet for daily news. Cell phones, laptops, and other portable devices provide a tremendous opportunity for readers to choose stories that interest them from the myriad of channels and websites anytime they want. The Internet provides “audiences with substantially more control over the news selection process than they enjoyed with the traditional media” (Tewksbury, 2003, p. 694).

The prevalence of news on the Web provides opportunities for people to encounter news in an incidental way as a byproduct of their online activities. Incidental discovery of online news is also becoming an important way of how people get informed about public events. Tewksbury, Weaver, & Maddex (2001) refer to unintentional news reading as a contemporary avenue for citizen acquisition of current affairs information. Purcell et al. (2010), found that eight in ten online news users (80%) reported that they experience “serendipitous” news consumption at least a few times a week, including 59% who said that this consumption happens every day or almost every day (p. 29).

However, these studies did not discuss their findings in the context of the literature in library and information science. The Information Encountering model developed by Erdelez (2004) could provide relevant theoretical framework to study incidental exposure to online news as one type of behavior related to opportunistic acquisition of information. For this study, incidental exposure to online news was conceptualized as memorable experiences of accidental discovery of useful and interesting news when people engage in various activities online.

The aim of this study was to build a rich picture of the concept of incidental exposure to online news and its nature and attributes, as perceived by the respondents in the context of news reading.

The research questions guiding this study are as follows:

  • 1What are the respondents' perceptions of incidental exposure to online news?
  • 2How often do respondents experience incidental exposure to online news?
  • 3Where do respondents incidentally discover online news?
  • 4How do respondents feel about finding online news incidentally?

BACKGROUND

Incidental exposure to online news

Incidental exposure to online news is not a widely studied area either in mass communication or in library and information science (LIS). Tewksbury et al. (2001) recognized that there is a potential chance for readers to stumble on news when they are engaged in other online activities. They identify this behavior as incidental exposure to news. They say many search engines and portals which provide information services increase the chances for incidental exposure to online news. In their later study, Tewksbury, Hals, & Bibart (2008) defined the two broad forms of news exposure behaviors: selectors and browsers. Selectors' news reading behavior is characterized by “a focus on specific content defined by individual interests and needs” (p. 257). Browsers are “characterized by use of news media to obtain information on a range of topics” (p. 257).

Lee (2009) also studied how incidental exposure helps readers follow the public agenda. His definition of incidental exposure to online news is based on Downs (1957) definition, which considers incidental exposure as a by-product of individuals' non-political activities and which does not cost any special effort to find. Nguyen (2008) argued that online news reading could happen unintentionally in many circumstances in the form of passive use due to the structure of media provision. He says that unintentional use could also take the form of ritualized convenience-based use of media services that are seen as having a neutral value.

Incidental information acquisition (IIA)

IIA is also one of the still developing areas of LIS research. According to Heinström (2006), accidental retrieval of useful information is a little researched phenomenon due to the obvious difficulty in capturing serendipity. Heinström defined “incidental information acquisition” (IIA) as acquiring (useful or interesting) information while not consciously looking for it. This definition is based on Williamson's (1998) notion of “finding information unexpectedly while engaged in other activities” (p. 24). Williamson (1998) defined “incidental information acquisition” synonymously with “accidental information discovery.”

Erdelez (2004) argued that users find interesting and useful information without the purposeful application of information searching skills and strategies. She called these experiences, “opportunistic acquisition of information” (p. 1013). In her earlier studies, Erdelez (1997) defined information encountering as “memorable experiences of accidental discovery of useful and interesting information” (p. 412). She stated that information encountering is one of many types of OAI. Erdelez (1995) described serendipity in two contexts of activity: browsing and environmental scanning. She identified the four types of information encounterers: super-encounterers, encounterers, occasional encounterers and non-encounterers. Erdelez identified the importance of the role of individual differences, cognitive styles, and personal characteristics in serendipity.

Information Encountering (IE) model

Erdelez (2004) has developed the IE model, which assumes that information users switch from the foreground task of finding specific information to the background interest or problem-related tasks during the information encountering process. She hypothesized that people have a number of discrete problems related to various subjects, with different levels of specificity, urgency, and complexity. According to Erdelez, people's information needs depend on these discrete problems, making them to switch to their background problems in their minds even during active searches for information not related to those problems. Erdelez (2004) argued that a person typically attends to only one problem at a time due to the limitations of the human perceptual system engaged when seeking information.

The IE model proposes several steps that occur during IE: noticing, stopping, examining, capturing, and returning. Each step involves a combination of cognitive, affective, and behavioral processes that may be applied to the user, who does the following:

  • 1Sees information relevant to the background problem;
  • 2Interrupts the original search process to examine the encountered information;
  • 3Saves the information that is deemed to be worth saving;
  • 4Returns to the initial information search for the foreground problem. (Erdelez, 2005, p. 181)

The author stated that these steps are not necessarily visible in each information encountering episode and the mode of their fulfillment depends on the characteristics of the specific information environments.

RESEARCH DESIGN

To capture, interpret, and understand the complex nature of incidental exposure to online news—the study used the mixed method approach. This combined approach allows the gathering of reasonably complete and reliable data on the real-world information behavior of online news readers.

Incidental information acquisition studies have typically used mixed methods with surveys and interviews (Erdelez, 1995), interviews and telephone diaries (Williamson, 1998) and surveys (Heinström, 2006). Erdelez (2004) has attempted to study “opportunistic acquisition of information” (OAI) in a controlled environment. She found that even if useful information is encountered, the urge to follow up on it may be suppressed. Heinström (2006) argued that the examination of encountered information may be more likely to be revealed in a relaxed setting.

The study was conducted in two phases. In Phase I, the researcher used surveys to collect data on respondents' general news reading behavior and their self-awareness regarding incidental exposure to online news. The researcher used purposeful and convenience sampling for this study. The participants were recruited through the website of the local newspaper, affiliated with the University of Missouri. The total number of valid responses obtained in the period of data collection was 148 questionnaires. Descriptive statistical analysis of the survey helped the researcher screen participants for in-depth interviews in Phase II.

In Phase II, the researcher conducted in-depth interviews using critical incident techniques (Urquhart et al., 2003), explication interviews (Vermersch, 1994) and think-aloud sessions with a selected number of respondents. Qualitative data collection with 20 respondents took place during 4 weeks in April and May 2009. All interviews were recorded with Morae Recorder 3.0 and a digital audio recorder. Morae was used to capture and observe respondents' incidental exposure to online news in real time during the interview sessions. The researcher also took short notes during interviews to capture the key points. All interview sessions, except two, took place in the Information Experience Laboratory (IE Lab) at the University of Missouri. To suit the needs of the respondents, two of the interview sessions were conducted at the home and the office of the respective interview respondents.

The interview sessions used the critical incident technique with the explication interview method and think-aloud method. The researcher asked respondents to introduce themselves in the beginning of the interview. Then they were asked to recall their most recent experiences of incidental exposure to online news. The critical incident technique and the explication interview were employed at this stage of the interview to facilitate respondents' retrospective thinking about their experiences. The researcher also applied the think-aloud method during the interview sessions to capture respondents' incidental exposure to online news in real time during the interview.

Qualitative data from the 20 interviews, including think-aloud sessions, were fully transcribed. All transcripts were analyzed with QSR NVivo 8.0, a qualitative data analysis software package. The researcher employed both inductive and deductive analyses in the qualitative data analysis process. The main concepts from the IE model were used in the deductive analysis process. The grounded-theory approach was used to analyze qualitative data by means of the inductive analysis.

Sample

About 40% of the interview respondents were male and 60 % of them were female. The majority of the interview respondents (70%) were between the ages of 20 to 40. About 25% of them were over the age 40 and only 5% of them were under the age of 20. The majority of the interview respondents (70%) stated that they have some graduate work and graduate/professional degree. About 40% of them were students, 5 %- employed part time, and 55%-employed full time.

The occupations of the interview respondents included homemaker, government officer, undergraduate student, graduate student, programmer, Web developer, administrative assistant at a local bank, project coordinator at the university, technician at a local insurance company, public school consultant, librarian at the university, assistant professor at the university, and facilitator for an autism program at a nonprofit organization.

FINDINGS

This paper presents findings from qualitative part of the study.

What are the respondents' perception of incidental exposure to online news?

The interview analysis showed that respondents' perception of their incidental exposure to online news could be divided according to the context where respondents experience this behavior. Three different contexts emerged: news reading context, non-news reading context (e-mail), and Internet in general. Few respondents perceived incidental exposure to online news as their typical behavior to get informed about the news events without mentioning the specific context.

Respondents' perceptions of incidental exposure to online news described in a news reading context could be divided into two groups. First, many respondents perceived that finding unusual news during their regular news reading process was incidental exposure to online news for them. The respondents used the following expressions to describe news that they found with incidental exposure out of their curiosity: “unusual,” “weird,” “interesting,” “bizarre,” “unexpected,” “outrageous,” “off the wall,” and “wildly different from the usual stream of information.” The illustrative examples are as follows:

…it just might be something just so off-the-wall like that, that I would look at it…Sometimes it's just so outrageous that you just got to go look, you know, and you know look at all these little side forms, and sometimes they catch my eye. It just kind of depends, it's just I guess whatever the mood or the news of the day is. (R2)

…it is just sort of the news of the weird, just things you sort of never really even think about it but then it's just so bizarre you just need to find out about it. (R10)

Second, a number of respondents stated that finding news that could enhance their knowledge is incidental exposure to online news. The respondents used the following words to describe their perception in this regard: finding something they “did not know before,” finding “something missed,” and finding “something they did not hear before.”

Most respondents shared their perceptions of incidental exposure to online news without discussing much about the context where it takes place. Only a few respondents tried to define incidental exposure to online news based on the context where it takes place. R5 had a very strong perception about incidental exposure to online news compared to other respondents. For this respondent, incidental exposure to online news meant running across news when he is doing something not related to news. He said that finding interesting news when he is browsing news is not incidental exposure because he has expects to incidentally discover news in this news reading context. For example, he said that he would not consider his experience of running into unexpected information at Digg (http://digg.com/) as incidental exposure to online news for the following reason:

I'll wait till I have a break in my work load and like, go there and take a break, for you know, fifteen minutes, where I know that I'm expecting, you know, I just want to see what's going on. What's going on the Internet today, what are the stories out there, what are people interested in, so in that sense I guess I'm actually expecting to run into unexpected information, whereas, where I'm in my e-mail, I am hoping that I do not run into unexpected information, that it's just business as usual.

R17 defined incidental exposure to online news as “seeing news” while she is doing something else, mainly on the Yahoo! site. She said, in other cases, she does not go “anywhere near the place” where she could see news.

Most respondents did not have problem sharing their perceptions of incidental exposure to online news. However, there were a few respondents who admitted that they did not think about this behavior before the interview. R1 said she has not thought about incidental exposure to online news until the researcher approached her. She admitted that incidental exposure to news “was happening all along” and it is “not anything new.”

How often do respondents experience incidental exposure to online news?

The researcher asked respondents about their general tendency toward incidental exposure to online news after they recalled their most recent experiences. The question seemed to be a difficult question for some respondents. Many respondents used the word “probably” to describe the frequency of experiencing incidental exposure to online news. R2 said it was a “kind of a hard question” because incidental exposure to online news does not happen “on a regular basis”:

Table 1. Frequency of Incidental Exposure to Online News.
FrequencyQuantitative Expressions
DailyAt least three or four times a day (R18)
 Probably like two, three, maybe four times a day… probably higher (R6) At least once a day (R19)
 Once or twice a day while I'm at work (R14)
 Once every couple of days (R10)
 Once every day (R10)
 Almost every day (R15)
 Every day (R16, R17)
 Probably daily, every day (R9)
WeeklyProbably once a week (R2)
 Once a week (R20)
 Probably three times a week (R12)

… It just comes from looking and just whatever's there. Sometimes it's cause something happens and I didn't know it happened, or I didn't hear about it or whatever. Sometimes it's just so outrageous that you just got to go look, you know, and you know look at all these little side forms, and sometimes they catch my eye. It just kind of depends, it's just I guess whatever the mood or the news of the day is. (R2)

R9 said incidental exposure to online news happens “pretty frequently,” but she does not “really think” about the “process of how that happens” because “sometimes it just happens.”

Respondents explained about the frequency of incidental exposure to online news in two different ways: quantitative and qualitative. Eleven out of 20 respondents quantified the frequency of their experience of incidental exposure to online news without any prompt. Quantitative expressions used by respondents are presented in Table 1.

Eight respondents said they experience incidental exposure to online news on daily basis. The daily frequency of this behavior ranged from “at least three four times” to once every day. R15 said that he experiences incidental exposure to online news “almost every day.” R18 stated she is runs across some interesting news “at least three or four times a day.”

Three respondents said they experience incidental exposure to online news weekly. R20 said she is incidentally exposed to news “once a week” because most of her activities are “pretty intentional.” She stated that incidental exposure to online news is “pretty unusual.” R12 said she experiences incidental exposure to online news “three times a week” when she is not seeking the given information. Compared to other respondents she has limited access to the Internet because of her work.

Two respondents explained that they usually experience incidental exposure to online news during their busy times. R19 said he browses news two or three times a day when he is busy. He admitted that he experiences incidental exposure to some interesting news during this browsing period because “something sticks out.” R10 reported that his experience of incidental exposure to online news “depends” on how busy he is “either at work” or “at home.”

Five respondents used the following words to express how often they experience incidental exposure to online news: “all the time” (R3), “constantly” (R4), “frequently, quite a bit” (R7), “pretty frequently” (R9) and “not very often.” (R5) Two respondents reported that they experience incidental exposure to online news “frequently.” R9 admitted that she experiences incidental exposure to online news “pretty frequently.” R7 also reported that incidental exposure to online news happens to him “quite a bit.” R5 said that he experiences incidental exposure to online news “not very often” and called his case described in the critical incident story as “an outlier” as far as his daily information seeking behavior.

Where do respondents incidentally discover online news?

The interview analysis indicates that respondents identified the two types of environments where they experienced incidental exposure to online news. The first type of environment mentioned by the respondents is websites where they are unintentionally exposed to online news. This group of environments could be classified into five subcategories:

  • 1Websites of traditional news media organizations
  • 2E-mail
  • 3Alternative media sources on the Internet
  • 4Non-Internet sources
  • 5Social networking sites.

Non-Internet sources include magazines, radio, TV, book reviews from newspapers and personal communication with other people.

The second type of environment includes places on the Internet where respondents intentionally go to experience incidental exposure to online news. These places included the following sites: Digg, Drudge Report, Yahoo!, Gawker, Slate (http://slate.com/), Boing Boing (http://boingboing.net/), StumbleUpon (http://www.stumbleupon.com/), and Google News Reader.

R11 said that she finds “the oddities, the stories” that she cannot find “elsewhere” in Drudge Report, where the headings are “inflammatory” and “obvious.” She discovered Drudge Report a few years ago when her colleague was visiting this site. R14 stated that she visits the Yahoo! site because “they have just a ton of random links.” She said she likes just “clicking on something” and finding “interesting things” that she “wasn't intending to read about.”

Two respondents commented that they get incidental exposure to online news at crowd-surfing sites, such as Digg or Slashdot, where stories are listed based on the voting system from readers. R5 said he is “pretty much guaranteed” that he will find “something” he was “not expecting to find” at Slashdot. He commented that with Digg is “kind of a gamble” and he “never” knows what he is going to find there. He called these the two sites where he “encounters the most unexpected information.” R10 reported that he experiences incidental exposure to online news at the affiliate websites of Slashdot, including “Big Money, The Root, and Foreign Policy.”

How do respondents feel about incidental exposure to online news?

The researcher asked the respondents about their general feelings towards incidental exposure to online news after they shared their critical incident stories about this behavior. Nineteen out of 20 respondents said that they have positive feelings about this behavior and described their feeling as: “lucky,” “exciting/excited,” “happy,” “wonderful,” “fun,” and “amusing.” They said that they “love” and “enjoy” incidental exposure to online news.

Many respondents explained the reasons they have positive feelings about incidental exposure to online news. They used the following words and expressions to explain the reasons: “so,” “because,” and “when I find something.” Seven respondents stated they have positive feeling about incidental exposure to online news because they like learning something new, acquiring knowledge, and finding missed stories. R10 said that she enjoys incidental exposure to online news because she loves learning something new as a result of this behavior. R2 compared incidental exposure to online news to the feeling of discovery of treasure:

I guess it's kind of the thrill of the chase, like you really discovered a treasure or something. Is it exciting? Yeah. I found something and I was like, how did I miss that, and why did I miss that and maybe I'm not, maybe I was being lazy that day or maybe I was too busy that day, I don't know. Uh yeah, it's kind of a thrill. (R2)

In two cases, respondents' favorable feelings towards incidental exposure to online news were explained by the fact that this behavior is their main way to get informed about news. R14 said she does not search for news because she thinks mainstream media cover too many depressing stories. She mostly runs across news at the Yahoo! portal:

It's helpful because I'm not a person that searches for news. Um, I don't really go to news sites very often…. I don't take the time to really look at what's going on. Cause it's always so depressing. So I just try not to look. But I like the little headlines, that way if there's something interesting, then I'll listen.

Three respondents mentioned the different reasons they like incidental exposure to online news. R9 said that incidental exposure to online news serves as a “guide” for her path: “I really enjoy. Maybe it's meant to be. Like spiritual not spiritual…but maybe it was, to guide my path. But here, it's like relevant.” R6 shared that his positive feeling toward incidental exposure to online news was from a “social point of view.” He likes incidental exposure to online news because it helps him to “talk to people” who have “diverse backgrounds” so that he could have “conversations” with them in “daily life.” R12 said incidental exposure to online news is fun and compared this experience to usage of an encyclopedia:

I guess I think it is fun. Um, it's like, looking something up in the encyclopedia used to be because you would get distracted on your way to find whatever you were looking for and say, oh, well I learned something about Spain. (R18)

Four respondents seemed to have mixed feelings about incidental exposure to online news. They commented that their feelings about this experience depend on what type of content they found incidentally. The illustrative remarks are as follows:

I think it's a positive thing in general. I mean, like it can be overwhelming, definitely, you can get sucked into it too much probably. But on the whole I think it's, I like it. (R13)

I love it, I mean, what serendipity, whatever, it's a wonderful thing. I probably will. I'm embarrassed now but I spend way too much time playing online, but frankly it's really useful and I don't think any of it's particularly gratuitous. I think it's pretty fun. (R11)

There was only one respondent out of 20 who had negative feelings about incidental exposure to online news. R20 said she is not “really happy” about this experience because she is “easily distracted” by it:

Yeah cause it's mostly things that you're not really sure if it's true, if it's actual or if it's just something, somebody's their slant on it, or something like that. I guess I just don't really have a lot of time to be thinking about uh, I don't know.

Her negative feelings about incidental exposure to online news were triggered by her thinking that she mostly finds unpleasant or doubtful information on the Internet.

DISCUSSION AND CONCLUSIONS

The findings of this study show that incidental exposure to online news is a complex behavior to study as any other types of behavior related to incidental acquisition of information. Respondents shared different perceptions about their incidental exposure to online news. They discussed their experiences in three different contexts: news reading context, non-news reading context, and Internet in general. Interview analysis confirms that incidental exposure to news is becoming a habitual means of consuming news for many people.

Most respondents defined incidental exposure to online news as finding “unusual,” “weird,” “interesting,” “bizarre,” “unexpected,” “outrageous,” “off the wall,” “wildly different from the usual stream of information” news while they were doing their habitual reading of online news. These definitions of incidental exposure to online news partially confirm Erdelez's (1997) definition of information encountering, which is based on “memorable experiences of accidental discovery of useful and interesting information” (p. 412). However, the respondents perceived incidental exposure to online news not only during the active news reading process but also during other habitual reading behavior. This part does not conform with Erdelez's (1997) definition of information encountering, which mainly focused on active search for information. The findings of this study demonstrate that online news reading happens mostly in a habitual way, and people still feel that they are exposed to interesting or unusual news incidentally. Only a few respondents clearly tried to distinguish incidental exposure to online news based on the context. R5 and R17 think that finding unexpected news during news reading is not considered incidental exposure to online news. R17 said finding news in a non-news reading context, such as shopping online, chatting with friends, or doing something on the Internet is “accidental” discovery of news. Their perceptions are close to Erdelez's (1997) definition of information encountering.

The four dimensions proposed by Erdelez (1995)—environment, user, information encountered, and information need addressed—were valuable elements for designing the research instruments and data analysis for this study.

Environment dimension

Erdelez (1995, 2004) looked at both the physical environment and the online environment in her studies. The findings of this study suggest that incidental exposure to online news is not limited to activities on the Internet. In many cases, the starting point for incidental exposure to online news can happen outside the Internet, most frequently through personal communication and radio. People followed up the stories on the Internet that they heard in their physical environment. These findings suggest that online information activities, including incidental information acquisition, cannot be separated from an individual's everyday life information seeking behavior. The online portion of the environment for incidental exposure does not provide the full picture of people's information behavior.

User dimension

The user dimension in Erdelez (1995) study encompasses behavioral, cognitive, and affective elements of information encountering. All interview respondents, except one, had positive feelings about their experience of incidental exposure to online news. They described their positive feelings as: “lucky,” “exciting/excited,” “happy,” “wonderful,” “fun,” and “amusing.” They said that they “love” and “enjoy” incidental exposure to online news. These findings support the Erdelez (1995) and Isen (2004) studies. Respondents mostly recalled their positive experiences of incidental exposure to online news. This recall of positive experiences could be explained by Isen's (2004) study in the cognitive psychology field. Isen hypothesized that the enhancing influence of positive effect on cognition, including openness to information reception and greater levels of aspiration and exploration, may be related to neurotransmitters like dopamine being present in greater quantities during positive affect states (p. 430). Positive feelings have the power to “cue positive material in memory…making it more likely that positive material will ‘come to mind.’ ” (Isen, 2004, p. 417). The evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that “common positive feelings are fundamentally involved in cognitive organization and processing.” (Isen, 2004, p. 417)

Respondents mentioned a number of reasons why they have positive feelings about incidental exposure to online news. Seven respondents stated that they liked incidental exposure to online news because it allowed them to learn something new, to acquire knowledge, or to find missed stories. Four respondents had mixed feelings about incidental exposure to online news. They commented that their feelings depended on what type of content they found. They said that incidental exposure to online news could be “overwhelming” and they could “get sucked into it too much.”

There was only one respondent out of 20 who had negative feelings about news encountering. R20 said incidental exposure to online news “wastes her time because she is “easily distracted” by various information on the Internet.

Information dimension

Erdelez (1995) divided information encountered by respondents into problem-related and interest-related categories. Problem-related information was useful and applicable to some identifiable problem areas of the users in her study. Interest-related information addressed the areas of general interest or concern. Erdelez (1995) stated that the usefulness of interest-related information was vague and was described as potential since the respondents did not have prior seeking experience related to that information.

The complexity of the interwoven information needs of respondents suggests that it is difficult to separate their information needs into only problem-related or interest-related needs. In many cases, underlying information needs for incidental exposure to online news could be explained by any combination of the aforementioned themes, which in turn, could belong to both interest-related and problem-related needs.

Information needs dimension

Erdelez (1995) discussed present, past, and future needs with regard to encountered information. The majority of information needs in her study were present needs, which means that users encountered information from their to-do lists, but not information pursued at the time of the information encountering. Erdelez's (1995) study did not provide situations with past information needs and only a few cases of future information needs.

The focus of this study was not specifically to examine the aforementioned three types of information needs. However, it could be concluded that there were many indications of future information needs in critical incident stories. Many respondents reported that they saved the incidentally exposed news stories for future reading and sharing with others. There were only two cases when the incidentally exposed news stories were related to the present needs of respondents. The present needs were followed by specific actions, such contacting the person mentioned in the business news story for R1 and posting a question to the technology forum about the merger of two software companies for R5. For future study, clearer definitions are needed to distinguish present, past, and future information needs.

Limitations and practical implications

Due to the complex nature of incidental exposure to online news, the researcher modified interview questions related to this behavior. Inconsistent questions about incidental exposure to online news, especially in the first few interviews, might have affected the respondents' descriptions of their experiences. It was a process of conducting a grounded theory type of study where the researcher could modify interview questions to get better responses to the given questions. It was a constructive process of understanding the nature of incidental exposure to online news in this study.

Understanding online news reading behavior, including incidental exposure to online news, may help media practitioners and other information agencies working to disseminate information and news for citizens. The proper structure and design of information sites and the placement of important news stories at appropriate places would help to promote a democratic society, encouraging people to hear and see news not only from like-minded people, but also from opposing views. It will be especially important for media organizations to place links to their important stories in different corners of the Internet, where people could get exposed to news incidentally. This way, the media industry could expand from its core consumers, reach a broader audience, and fulfill its role in promoting the public discussion of important issues.

Ancillary