By spreading information and helping keep public officials accountable, the news media holds a special position in the functioning of a democracy. But today news organizations also face extraordinary challenges that cast some doubt on whether they will be able to continue to play this important role. Small newspapers are shuttering and even the largest newspapers are imposing staffing cuts; advertisers increasingly direct their dollars away from traditional media outlets and towards online ads through Google and Facebook. The deep partisan divide in the country appears also to be reflected in what people read and watch, as consumers of news choose sources that conform with their pre-existing partisan leanings and therefore gain little exposure to conflicting views. Given these and other challenges, is the news media still so important in setting the agenda for what people are talking and thinking about?
In recent research published in Science, I, along with my co-authors Gary King and Ariel White, find that the answer appears to be yes. We conducted what is, to our knowledge, the first large scale randomized experimental study of the American news media, involving almost fifty small to medium-sized independent news outlets.
Here’s an example of how our experiment worked. First, we selected a broad policy area—say, immigration—and found a group of three to five news outlets who wanted to write stories in this area. The outlets coordinated among themselves to determine the narrower subject of their reporting, and verified their choice with us. For example, within the broad policy area of immigration they might decide to write a series of stories on the DREAM Act. The type of article varied but tended towards “evergreen” stories such as features or opinion pieces. We coordinated with the news outlets to find a time window of two weeks in which they were willing to publish. Once the stories were ready, we then flipped a coin to select which week the news outlets would publish and promote their work according to their normal procedures. Importantly, the news outlets retained total control over the content of their stories while we retained control over the timing of publication.
We then traced the impact of these articles on online conversations within the relevant policy area. By comparing conversations in the “on” week when the journalists published their articles to the “off” week when they did not, we were able to estimate the influence of these news outlets. We found that just three news outlets could have a notable effect on the national conversation. Specifically, when the outlets ran their stories, social media discussion in the relevant topic area increased by about 63% of a typical day’s volume distributed over the course of the week. A large proportion of the increase occurred in the first two days of the experiment. On the first day there was a 19.4% increase in posts. Furthermore, the effects appear to be the same across different subgroups of people. We did not detect meaningful differences in the responses of Democrats versus Republicans, or men versus women, or of people from different regions of the county. For instance, returning to our immigration example, this would mean that coverage of the DREAM Act increased online conversations on immigration among both Democratic and Republican-leaning social media users.
These results show that online journalism is still profoundly influential for and deeply connected to a broad group of people. At the same time, our work raises some cautionary notes. As the composition of the media landscape continues to evolve, changes in how outlets cover important political issues may also have repercussions for the quality of our ongoing national conversation. Similarly, our findings appear to be in line with the notion that coordinated campaigns pushing misinformation (whether through established news outlets or newly invented ones) can have a surprisingly large impact in this era of online media consumption.
Benjamin Schneer is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science.
The featured image is from the Huffington Post website.