May 23, 2010

New Media, Old Media

How Blogs and Social Media Agendas Relate and Differ from the Traditional Press

News today is increasingly a shared, social experience. Half of Americans say they rely on the people around them to find out at least some of the news they need to know. [1] Some 44% of online news users get news at least a few times a week through emails, automatic updates or posts from social networking sites. In 2009, Twitter’s monthly audience increased by 200%. [2]

While most original reporting still comes from traditional journalists, technology makes it increasingly possible for the actions of citizens to influence a story’s total impact.

What types of news stories do consumers share and discuss the most? What issues do they have less interest in? What is the interplay of the various new media platforms? And how do their agendas compare with that of the mainstream press?

To answer these questions, the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism has gathered a year of data on the top news stories discussed and linked to on blogs and social media pages and seven months’ worth on Twitter. We also have analyzed a year of the most viewed news-related videos on YouTube. Several clear trends emerge.

Most broadly, the stories and issues that gain traction in social media differ substantially from those that lead in the mainstream press. But they also differ greatly from each other.  Of the 29 weeks that we tracked all three social platforms, blogs, Twitter and YouTube shared the same top story just once. That was the week of June 15-19, when the protests that followed the Iranian elections led on all three.

Each social media platform also seems to have its own personality and function. In the year studied, bloggers gravitated toward stories that elicited emotion, concerned individual or group rights or triggered ideological passion. Often these were stories that people could personalize and then share in the social forum – at times in highly partisan language. And unlike in some other types of media, the partisanship here does not lean strongly to one side or the other. Even on stories like the Tea Party protests, Sarah Palin and public support for Obama both conservative and liberal voices come through strongly.

On Twitter, by contrast, technology is a major focus – with a heavy prominence on Twitter itself – while politics plays a much smaller role. The mission is primarily about passing along important – often breaking – information in a way that unifies or assumes shared values within the Twitter community. And the breaking news that trumped all else across Twitter in 2009 focused on the protests following the Iranian election. It led as the top news story on Twitter for seven weeks in a row – a feat not reached by any other news story on any of the platforms studied.

YouTube has still other characteristics that set it apart. Here, users don’t often add comments or additional insights but instead take part by selecting from millions of videos and sharing. Partly as a result, the most watched videos have a strong sense of serendipity. They pique interest and curiosity with a strong visual appeal. The “Hey you’ve got to see this,” mentality rings strong.  Users also gravitate toward a much broader international mix here as videos transcend language barriers in a way that written text cannot.

Across all three social platforms, though, attention spans are brief. Just as news consumers don’t stay long on any website, social media doesn’t stay long on any one story. On blogs, 53% of the lead stories in a given week stay on the list no more than three days. On Twitter that is true of 72% of lead stories, and more than half (52%) are on the list for just 24 hours.

And most of those top weekly stories differ dramatically from what is receiving attention in the traditional press. Blogs overlap more than Twitter, but even there only about a quarter of the top stories in any given week were the same as in the “MSM.”

Instead, social media tend to home in on stories that get much less attention in the mainstream press. And there is little evidence, at least at this point, of the traditional press then picking up on those stories in response. Across the entire year studied, just one particular story or event – the controversy over emails relating to global research that came to be known as “Climate-gate” –  became a major item in the blogosphere and then, a week later, gaining more traction in traditional media.

These are some conclusions drawn from one of the first comprehensive empirical assessments of the relationships between social media and the more traditional press.

The study examined the blogosphere and social media by tracking the news linked to on millions of blogs and social media pages tracked by Icerocket and Technorati from January 19, 2009, through January 15, 2010. [3] It also tracked the videos on YouTube’s news channel for the same period. It measured Twitter by tracking news stories linked to within tweets as monitored by Tweetmeme from June 15, 2009, through January 15, 2010. [4]

Among the specific findings:

  • Social media and the mainstream press clearly embrace different agendas. Blogs shared the same lead story with traditional media in just 13 of the 49 weeks studied. Twitter was even less likely to share the traditional media agenda – the lead story matched that of the mainstream press in just four weeks of the 29 weeks studied. On YouTube, the top stories overlapped with traditional media eight out of 49 weeks.
  • The stories that gain traction in social media do so quickly, often within hours of initial reports, and leave quickly as well. Just 5% of the top five stories on Twitter remained among the top stories the following week. This was true of 13% of the top stories on blogs and 9% on YouTube. In the mainstream press, on the other hand, fully 50% of the top five stories one week remained a top story a week later.
  • Politics, so much a focus of cable and radio talk programming, has found a place in blogs and on YouTube. On blogs, 17% of the top five linked-to stories in a given week were about U.S. government or politics, often accompanied by emphatic personal analysis or evaluations. These topics were even more prevalent among news videos on YouTube, where they accounted for 21% of all top stories. On Twitter, however, technology stories were linked to far more than anything else, accounting for 43% of the top five stories in a given week and 41% of the lead items. By contrast, technology filled 1% of the newshole in the mainstream press during the same period.
  • While social media players espouse a different agenda than the mainstream media, blogs still heavily rely on the traditional press – and primarily just a few outlets within that – for their information. More than 99% of the stories linked to in blogs came from legacy outlets such as newspapers and broadcast networks. And just four – the BBC, CNN, the New York Times and the Washington Post accounted for fully 80% of all links.
  • Twitter, by contrast, was less tied to traditional media. Here half (50%) of the links were to legacy outlets; 40% went to web-only news sources such as Mashable and CNET. The remaining 10% went to wire stories or non-news sources on the Web such as a blog known as “Green Briefs,” which summarized daily developments during the June protests in Iran.
  • The most popular news videos on YouTube, meanwhile, stood out for having a broader international mix. A quarter, 26%, of the top watched news videos were of non-U.S. events, primarily those with a strong visual appeal such as raw footage of Pope Benedict XVI getting knocked over during Mass on Christmas Eve or a clip of a veteran Brazilian news anchor getting caught insulting some janitors without realizing his microphone was still live. Celebrity and media-focused videos were also given significant prominence.

In producing PEJ’s New Media Index, the basis for this study, there are some challenges posed by the breath of potential outlets. There are literally millions of blogs and tweets produced each day. To make that prospect manageable, the study observes the “news” interests of those people utilizing social media, as classified by the tracking websites. PEJ did not make a determination as to what constitutes a news story as opposed to some other topic, but generally, areas outside the traditional notion of news such as gardening, sports or other hobbies are not in the purview of content.

By focusing on this type of subject matter, the study creates a close comparison between the news agenda of users of social media and of the more traditional news media. This approach could  tend to make the agendas of the mainstream and new media platforms appear even more similar than they would be if a wider array of subject matter were practicable to capture. Thus the divergent agendas found here, if anything, are even more striking.


Footnotes:

1. http://www.journalism.org/analysis_report/understanding_participatory_news_consumer

2. http://www.emarketer.com/Article.aspx?R=1007271

3. For the NMI, the priorities of bloggers and users of Twitter are measured in terms of percentage of links. Each time a news blog or social media Web page adds a link to its site directing its readers to a news story, it suggests that the author places at least some importance on the content of that article. The user may or may not agree with the contents of the article, but they feel it is important enough to draw the reader’s attention to it.

4.  There were three weeks in 2009 when no NMI was produced: March 2-6, November 16-20, and December 14-18.