Wired's reporting on Pew Research Center's recent poll about how people get their news in the modern era raises some very interesting questions about what it means to "get your news from social media". What strikes the reader immediately is that there are two headlines for two seemingly contradictory conclusions drawn from the study:
HEADLINE 1: People Don't See Social Media as an 'Important' News Source
HEADLINE 2: Facebook and Twitter Are Where People Are Getting Their News
That these posts draw seemingly different conclusions from the same report indicates the need to deconstruct the research and reporting on social media. While reliance on Twitter and Facebook for tracking the news is on the rise, the majority of Americans still use other media to get most of their news.
In an earlier column, I challenged researchers to dig deeper into how people use social media. Instead of just identifying which social media channels people use, we need to know more about how they use different social media channels. To this end, I applaud Pew for doing just that - this study looks at the extent to which people use social media to get news.
That said, we need to go even deeper. To illustrate why, consider this: Several years ago, I was moderating a panel I assembled on how think tanks could better work with bloggers. The audience, at Netroots Nation, was filled with bloggers. And, of course, the bloggers wanted to know which blogs the panelists read. As each panelist offered up their favorite blogs, I could see heads nodding in the audience; the heads of other readers of those blogs and the heads of some of the bloggers mentioned by the panelists, themselves.
When it was my turn to answer, I proclaimed that I didn't read blogs. I read Twitter. And the people, lists and keywords that I follow on Twitter tell me which articles to read. These articles come from many sources, including from many blogs. So I read blogs, true, but not in the sense that I go to a particular blog or set of blogs regularly to see what they are publishing. In fact, over the years, I've developed a process for curating content in this manner and now help our clients at turner4D use the same process.
As I read the articles in Wired about the Pew study, several questions came to mind about how we're still measuring and reporting on social media's impact. These questions are outlined here, as well as some detailed answers from the Pew's Director of Journalism Research, Amy Mitchell.
1) The notion that we get news from social media needs unpacking
To some people, this means getting first-hand accounts from events on the ground (think Ferguson and Baltimore). In this case, it's eyewitnesses using social media to share what they see - not social media, itself - that is the source.
Seen another way, social media is where people share links to articles from news media outlets and where news media outlets directly share their articles. In this formulation, people may learn of a Wall Street Journal article via Twitter or Facebook, but WSJ is the actual source, not social media.
People also simply share what they hear or read in the news without a link to the source.
When we ask people whether they use social media as an important source for news, we leave unclear which of these they mean when answering.
In response to this question and deconstruction, Amy Mitchell adds these thoughts and insights to how Pew is approaching the issue now and in the future (Mitchell's thoughts in italics):
"This is a question we've thought a lot about and are working to unpack in our research. The proliferation in the number of news providers and options for ways to connect to them has also meant a proliferation in ways to think about and define news. In social media, for example, "news" can, as you say, mean a host of things including information a friend shared in their own words, something shared that also contains a link from a news provider (whether a traditional news source, an issue-based group, government outlets or something else), a post directly from one of these sources. In addition, another challenge in social media analysis is the degree to which the experience is very much individualized - based on personal choices, those of the friends in one's network, and algorithm or other structural factors.
We've taken several steps to try to get at different angles of this - and plan to do more in the coming year as there is still a good deal to unpack.
- One of the first steps can be to define in each instance what we mean by news. Our most common definition for our social media work (and the one uses in the most recent survey) is "information about events and issues beyond just your friends and family." It's still quite broad but does eliminate quite a bit of what occurs in those spaces. We then pair it with questions about the topics of news which help refine it further. Some of our other work that involved social media asked specifically about "news about government and politics."
- We've also taken several steps to try to get a sense of the influence of news providers. We've asked, in multiple surveys, about the degree to which Facebook and Twitter users follow journalism providers, elected leader/campaigns and issue-based groups. As the recent survey showed, following news organizations or journalists is more common on Twitter than Facebook (46% versus 28%) - and a follow-up report broke the Facebook findings down along generational lines. The question was also asked of Facebook news users in 2013 with a follow-up that asked whether most of the news comes from these providers or from friends/family. We found that for those that do follow news organizations, about half say most of their news comes from the news organizations rather than friends and family. Finally, our study of local news ecology in three cities asked very specifically about following specific local news providers in social media. And, separately, we scraped content from both Facebook and Twitter to study both the news organizations presence on the platforms as well as user behavior
- We've also asked the degree to which these news users click on news links and found that about half of Facebook news consumers at least sometimes click on news links. And back in 2012 asked about the sources of those news links - more likely friends on Facebook and more evenly divided among friends and news org's on Twitter (might be worth asking this one again soon.)
- By crossing these different groups we can get a sense of the various sources of news in social media as consumers attribute them. But it's not exact. As Andy Kohut has spoken of many times, it's really hard to ask people how they learned about a specific piece of information. They normally just can't remember. But - we have thought about other ways to try to get there and have research designed for the coming year that should be able to ask in a closer time frame (something called experience sampling that surveys people with short surveys multiple times over a few days) about the ultimate source of the information as well as about brand awareness - and also research designed around studying actual user behavior.
While there's still a great deal to learn, we strongly believe in the value of what has been gathered thus far. These surveys help us understand the pathways consumers use for news, the ways they are being informed and who they sense is providing that to them - even if in some cases they may not be aware of the original source (something that I would say has also been true before social media, as our data have shown for instance that newspapers provide most of the original reporting around local news events which then can be repeated in local radio or TV programs)."
2) People who get their news word-of-mouth from friends often are getting news their friends discovered via social media
In this formulation, the end user doesn't even know that social media was the "source" (caveats described above notwithstanding).
"Agreed; just as a friend wouldn't know if it came from reading the newspaper, or listening to a radio program or talking with another friend. What we are measuring here is the immediate source which tells us what or who people consciously rely on for their knowledge gain. And our research has shown, again and again, that Word of Mouth remains an extremely important pathway."
3) Oftentimes, print and broadcast reporters get their information (or some of it) via social media
Thus, even news we get from radio, TV and newspapers comes in part from social media (again, with the above caveats).
"Sure. This is likely something that's grown as news organizations and journalists have become more knowledgeable about and comfortable with social media. Our study way back in 2011 found it mainly to be a distribution platform rather than a way to connect with audiences. We later studied how the campaigns used social media in the 2012 and 2008 elections, which could be both to engage with voters as well as feed information to journalists. (And in a separate election study in 2012 saw the degree to which the campaigns themselves were supplying the messages journalists were writing about.) This seems like a good topic for a future survey of journalists."
And it's why my colleagues and I have spent a lot of time working with news media organizations to help their journalists become more adept at using social media.
As you can see, these considerations significantly cloud what it means to "get news" from social media. But, as Amy Mitchell's answers indicate, we will see some of the unpacking of the relationship between the people and the news as mediated by social media in the current study and more unpacking to come.
In general, my chief concern with regard to research in this area is that the surveys that are not constructed to untangle any of these considerations will misrepresent the role social media plays in informing people. And reporters covering this research need to be attuned to these concerns and look for the insights in the research, if it's there, and note it when it's not.
Unless the press is attuned to these issues, coverage of social media, in my opinion, has the potential to damage society. Instead of teaching people the media and information literacy skills they need in order to make effective use of the rich information shared via social media, bad coverage would teach them to dismiss or downplay social media as a news source for reasons (as outlined above) that are not warranted.
Mitchell's overarching comments about my questions and concerns nails the challenge right on the head:
"Gaining an understanding of social media's influence on our news ecology is complicated. In addition to the kinds of indirect influences that exist in any medium, social media and how news functions and flows through there is made all the more complex through the layers of mediators, touch points and individualized experiences. As you say, it's far from monolithic. Through a number of different research studies, we're hopefully helping to chip away at understanding the various functions and how they fit into the larger news ecosystem. I address your three points one by one (above) with examples of some of what we have learned in each area. While the picture is still far from complete, I do believe' strongly' in the value of our work thus far. And, while the space creates challenges for researchers, I find it exciting to be a part of."
I share Amy's excitement about this research. And I'm looking forward to the release of the studies she outlines above when they're finished.
In order to help all of us better understand how people use social media to get the news; I invite you to share your methods in the comment section below. I look forward to your comments, too.