Blog Post

The News and Social Media in America

Before any report came out on a reputable news source, before Barack Obama gave his address to the nation, Twitter was already buzzing with news of Osama bin Ladens death. Nearly an hour before Obama stepped up to the camera to speak to the nation, Keith Urbahn tweeted:

"So I'm told by a reputable person they have killed Osama Bin Laden. Hot damn."

From that point on there was no stopping it. The news spread like wildfire. At 11pm (the peak of the tweeting), people were tweeting at a rate of 5,106 tweets per second. In fact, it wasnt until 10:45 that major media sources picked up on the news. In those 20 minutes, activity on Twitter spiked from about 2,900 tweets per second to about 3,700.

(graph of Twitter activity over time 5/1/11)

Within a few hours, videos of spontaneous celebrations started popping up on youtube.com (crudely captured via cell phone camera, per usual). At a baseball game between the Mets and the Phillies, the crowd erupted into a spontaneous U-S-A chant as everyone heard the news.

Social networks have an unparalleled power to spread news and awareness. People are more informed and up to date than ever before. But what does that mean for the news media?

As a generation, we have never been connected to our news sources or reporters the way previous generations have. We have no Walter Cronkite or Tom Brokaw, simply because we dont need them. When it comes to news, we have hundreds, if not thousands of sources, whether it is from a major media outlet, a small blog, Twitter, or Facebook. A few facts about the current news media trends from a blog by Chad Garrison, journalist with the Riverfront Times, show exactly how much social media is changing the way we get information:

 

  • People tend to be news grazers getting their information from a variety of sources with just 33 percent of Internet users saying they have a favorite site for their news gathering.
  • Moreover, the average time per visit to news sites continues to drop. In 2009 it was three minutes and six seconds. Last year it dropped to just two-and-a-half minutes.
  • Seventy-seven percent of social-media users say they get their news from social media.
  • Facebook is now the third biggest referral site for news articles, following only Google and the main new site from which an article is linked (ex. a New York Times article thats linked from the main page of the NYT.)
  • In 2010 online news readership grew 8.5 percent. News consumption for all the following fell: local TV (-1.1%); network TV (-3.4%); print newspapers (-5%); cable TV (-11.4%); magazines (-12%).
  • Newspapers have lost an estimated $1.6 billion from their newsrooms budgets since 2000, and that money isnt coming back with online ads selling for a fraction of what similar print and classified ads sold for.

As news flows ever more quickly via social media, is the news media going to disappear? Are major media outlets going to go by the wayside as blogs, and other social media outlets take over? Certainly gone are the days of the news coming strictly from CBS, NBC, ABC, and newspapers, but what effect will that have on the way the news is reported?

 

Chad Garrison suggests that major news outlets are becoming more partisan to increase traffic, and I certainly see his point. Media partisanship is by no means a new issue. A quick glance at the history section of the Media Bias in the United States Wikipedia page shows that this issue runs all the way back to Benjamin Franklin (and certainly, I would imagine, beyond that). With the amount and accessibility of information on the Internet, however, the problem seems to have been exacerbated. Depending on where you go to get your news, the same exact story can be told many different ways (anyone who has read The New York Times or listened to NPR and watched Fox News in the same day knows that all too well). News media, just like the rest of the nation, has split along political lines. The polarization of the media can be clearly seen in the numbers from a 2003-2004 study by the Program on International Policy Attitudes:

 

  • Percentage of viewers who believed that the "U.S. has found clear evidence in Iraq that Saddam Hussein was working closely with the al Qaeda terrorist organization" :
    • 67% for Fox, 56% for CBS, 49% for NBC, 48% for CNN, 45% for ABC, 16% for NPR/PBS.
  • Percentage of viewers who believed that "The U.S. has found Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq" :
    • 33% for Fox, 23% for CBS, 19% for ABC, 20% for NBC, 20% for CNN and 11% for NPR/PBS
  • Percentage of viewers who believed "the majority of people [in the world] favor the U.S. having gone to war" with Iraq.
    • 35% for Fox, 28% for CBS, 27% for ABC, 24% for CNN, 20% for NBC, 5% for NPR/PBS

 

Theses numbers are pretty amazing to begin with, but if you look at how politically charged America is right now, they are not surprising. In fact, I would argue that the media has caused a good amount of the animosity between political parties. As news outlets polarize their coverage, people who follow those outlets polarize in their beliefs, beginning to see issues from only one perspective and blinding themselves to other viewpoints. It is a classic case of group polarization on a huge scale.

 

While I do see that it may be an economically necessary move for major media outlets to pick a side, I think that when they do they do a disservice to their readers, and our nation. Thankfully, the Internet (more specifically social media) has given us the power to circumvent these increasingly biased sources and opened doors for us to be more inquisitive.

 

The onus, however, is on us to go through those doors. We cannot be satisfied to read a story in one place, to hear one side of an issue and make up our minds. With so much information at our fingertips, we are doing ourselves a disservice if we simply take someone elses opinion as our own, and view the world through a narrow lens. We have the technology to broaden our horizons without even leaving our couch. I think itd be a pity if we didnt.

 

 

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