Newspaper revenue continues to plummet as readers ditch their subscriptions and head to online news sites, but studies are showing another twist in online news consumption: Growing numbers of people are getting their news through social media sites. While local and national TV news still come first, the Internet is now America’s third most popular news platform, according to a 2010 Pew Internet and American Life Project survey.
Of those who get their news online, 75 percent said they get news forwarded through email or posts on social networking sites, and just over half said they share links to news with others via those same means.
Tweet or post a link, or hit the Facebook “like” button on an article, and you’ve distributed the story to your entire network. Readers click, and off they go, thanks to their own personal news curator.
News sharing has always been a social activity. Newspapers began in English coffee houses in the 17th century, many situated next to ports. People would rush off ships from other countries full of gossip. The same instinct applies today at the water cooler or the bar. Internet consumption peaks after lunch, as people learn snippets of information from colleagues and then return to their desks to find out more.
So our peers have set the agenda to some extent for a long time. This may simply happen more often today because of social media. Traditionally, our news was curated by an editor. With social media, the “editors” are our friends or family. How much does that matter?
Robert Hernandez, who teaches Web journalism at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication, says it could actually make your news-getting experience even better. “Your news was curated by a [more official] curator—the editor, then picked up by one of your friends—and it then showed up on your screen. There is this wisdom of the crowd—the cream rises to the top.” Still, what is considered “cream” can be subjective. “It could be Justin Bieber or a profile piece on a politician.”
Sree Sreenivasan, professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism
With so much information out there, Hernandez warns, news consumers need to pay attention to the source. He counts himself among them. Last year Hernandez excitedly tweeted out some news he’d heard about a study on IQs. He didn’t check it first, largely because the findings confirmed his personal prejudices. He soon discovered the “study” was a hoax, but it was too late—his tweet was already being re-tweeted by some of his followers. “It spread like wildfire,” he says. He ended up sending out a “mea culpa” tweet to those who had re-tweeted his tweet, asking them to spread the word.
Since the dawn of the digital news age, researchers have fretted that so-called incidental news acquisition—the effect of skimming through a newspaper or listening to a newscast and learning something you didn’t think you were interested in—would drop. But research shows that the need to discover new things doesn’t diminish just because the news delivery system is changing. Social media, most experts believe, is just another tool to deliver information.
How much of their news do social media junkies glean from these networking sites? Although readership of news posted to social media sites is increasing, it’s unlikely people are getting their entire news diet through this filter.
Hernandez says if you only read news posted by like-minded friends, your views will be limited (although arguably no more so than if you only read a newspaper that reflects your prejudices). But on the whole, he is optimistic about the effect social media is having on news consumption.
“Ask someone how engaged they were with news before Facebook,” he says. “Were they watching news or listening to the radio as much? I would propose Facebook is getting more people aware of and consuming news than before.” Sure, there are more meaningless status updates, but there’s more news too.
Sree Sreenivasan, a professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, points out an interesting wrinkle in the Facebook news effect. “The problem with Facebook sharing or relying only on that [to get your news] is that studies have shown the things people share are things that make them look good, empathetic, well read, smart and humorous.” So the news people post is, to a certain extent, filtered through their ego. Still, he also believes that, ultimately, social media helps people become better informed.
Hernandez and Sreenivasan both believe social media improves our knowledge of current events simply because there’s so much sharing going on. And while a recent Pew study shows only 3 percent of the U.S. population is on Twitter (as opposed to 50 percent on Facebook), other studies suggest the number may be slightly higher. Also, Twitter users tend to be “influencers,” so Twitter has a larger effect on everyday news consumers than you might expect. Take the killing of Osama bin Laden last spring. The chief of staff for former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld tweeted that he had it on good authority bin Laden was dead. His message was re-tweeted endlessly and the news of the death was reported on TV before President Obama made his own announcement confirming it an hour later.
Twitter also acts as a real-time news delivery system for regular citizens. People can and do contribute eyewitness accounts of unfolding events via a series of tweets, some of which are picked up and broadcast by news organizations.
Social media makes for a richer world of news. It adds context and sometimes confusion, as inaccurate information is passed along at top speed, but ultimately often debunked by news consumers themselves.
So where does this leave the average news junkie? “The best news consumers are those who combine traditional and social media to keep up with the news,” says Sreenivasan. “If you rely on traditional media, you are out of the loop, and if you just use social media, you miss something.”
All you need is the time for both.
Ashley Milne-Tyte is a New York-based writer and reporter who specializes in communication. She has written for The Wall Street Journal, the New York Daily News and Financial Times, and has also reported on business and the economy for public radio’s Marketplace.
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