Media responsible for driving conversations that dominate social media feeds

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — If it seems like you glance at a headline and the next thing you know the story is consuming your Facebook and Twitter feeds, it’s no coincidence. A five-year study out of Florida State University found that the news media is responsible for shaping public discourse and gearing people up to express their viewpoints more openly.

“We wanted to determine, in a rigorous way, exactly what the effect of the media was on the national conversation,” explains Benjamin Schneer, one of the study’s authors and an assistant professor of political science at the university, in a release.

Laptop with online news
If it seems like you glance at a headline and the next thing you know the story is consuming your Facebook and Twitter feeds, it’s no coincidence.

Researchers found that for any given day, all it takes is three news sources — and these do not have to be major media outlets — reporting on a major national policy topic to push discussion of that topic up by 62.7%.

The study took a large-scale, randomized approach, including 48 media outlets from across the country. Most of these small- to medium-sized companies are part of Media Consortium, a network of independent news organizations.

For the study, three to four outlets worked together as a group. Each outlet wrote, republished or presented news reports on one of 11 policy topics, such as race, abortion or refugees. Stories came out over a two-week window, with a coin toss determining which of the two weeks the reports would go out, thus establishing the randomness of the experiment. With this random assignment, one week became the “control” week and the other the “treatment” week.

“Ultimately, our goals were to fit our experiment into their usual practices and also not to interfere with journalistic integrity,” says Schneer. “The breakthrough was to find an experimental design that allowed the outlets to retain control of what they published and that allowed us to retain control over when it was published.”

Researchers used tools and data from a Harvard-based startup, Crimson Hexagon, to track social media posts nationally for both treatment and control weeks. They found that the largest uptick in social media discussions occurred during the first two days of the experiment, with a nearly 20% increase in posts. The increased discussions happened in all regions of the country and did not vary by political view or gender.

“Our first study suggests that small to medium outlets can have a significant impact — that you don’t have to be the New York Times to have a seat at the table when it comes to influencing what people are talking about on social media,” says Schneer said. “One intriguing possibility is that collaboration across multiple outlets plays an important role in this process.”

Researchers would like to do a follow-up study with the variable being news media working as a team versus independently.

Whether it’s good news, bad news, fake news or real news, news gets people talking.

“The results emphasize the important impact journalists can have on the national conversation and on democracy in America,” concludes Schneer. “What journalists do matters because it plays an important role in determining what people are talking and thinking about. Our study shows that this is even more true than we might have expected.”

The full study was published Nov. 10, 2017 in the journal Science.