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Nov. 20, 2018, 8 a.m.

Polarizing the network: The most interesting new digital and social media research

Journalist’s Resource sifts through the academic journals so you don’t have to. Here’s their latest roundup, including research into how Twitter impacts reporters’ news judgment, how often we remember where we read something, and why Facebook makes you feel bad.

Editor’s note: There’s a lot of interesting academic research going on in digital media — but who has time to sift through all those journals and papers?

Our friends at Journalist’s Resource, that’s who. JR is a project of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, and they spend their time examining the new academic literature in media, social science, and other fields, summarizing the high points and giving you a point of entry.

Here, JR’s managing editor, Denise-Marie Ordway, sums up some of the most interesting papers in digital media and journalism published between August and October. (You can also check out her roundups from the first and second quarters of the year.)

Scholars in the digital media and journalism space have focused a lot of attention on Twitter in recent months, examining how the busy platform influences people’s behavior — including reporters’ news judgment. Below, we’ve gathered five peer-reviewed papers we thought you’d want to know about, three of which look at journalists’ relationships with social media. We also included a new study from researchers at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford that has implications for news branding and efforts to build public trust in journalism.

Happy reading! And remember, if you come across a good study you think we should spotlight, let us know about it at @JournoResource.

“Exposure to opposing views on social media can increase political polarization”: From Duke University, Brigham Young University and New York University, published in PNAS. By Christopher A. Bail, Lisa P. Argyle, Taylor W. Brown, John P. Bumpus, Haohan Chen, M. B. Fallin Hunzaker, Jaemin Lee, Marcus Mann, Friedolin Merhout, and Alexander Volfovsky.

A common criticism of social media platforms is they encourage like-minded people to form social networks that limit their exposure to different points of view and sources of information. There’s a growing concern that these so-called “echo chambers” are fueling political polarization in the U.S.

This study, however, demonstrates the opposite is true — at least for Republicans on Twitter. Researchers find that Republicans become more conservative when their Twitter feeds fill with messages reflecting opposing political ideologies.

For this study, researchers asked regular Twitter users who identified as Republicans or Democrats to follow a Twitter account that retweeted 24 messages each day for a month. Some people were unknowingly assigned to Twitter accounts that retweeted messages from elected officials, opinion leaders and others promoting opposing views.

Scholars discovered that Republicans’ attitudes grew more conservative after following a Twitter account that retweeted liberal messages. Democrats who followed an account that shared conservative messages became slightly more liberal, although that change was not statistically significant.

 “Our study indicates that attempts to introduce people to a broad range of opposing political views on a social media site such as Twitter might not only be ineffective but counterproductive — particularly if such interventions are initiated by liberals,” the authors write.

“Twitter’s influence on news judgment: An experiment among journalists”: From the University of Utah and Temple University, published in Journalism. From Shannon C. McGregor and Logan Molyneux.

This study also looks at how Twitter messages affect behavior — namely, news judgment. The key takeaway: Inexperienced journalists and journalists who routinely use Twitter at work considered anonymous, context-free tweets to be as newsworthy as headlines from the Associated Press.

In March 2016, 212 U.S. journalists were asked to rate the newsworthiness of two sets of information. Some were shown two sets of headlines derived from headlines on the AP newswire. Other journalists were presented with a set of anonymous tweets as well as headlines that appeared to be from AP. Journalists rated items in terms of their newsworthiness and importance and how strongly they possessed news values such as timeliness and impact. Each journalist’s ratings were combined into a composite “newsworthiness” score.

The authors analyzed journalists’ responses, taking into consideration their Twitter usage. Journalists characterized as “high-frequency users” reported being on Twitter several times a day or connected all day while “low-frequency users” said they use it less often.

The two groups gave similar ratings to headlines written in AP format. However, high-frequency Twitter users considered the tweets to be more newsworthy than low-frequency users did.

The findings, according to the study’s authors, “hint at a profound disconnect between the concept of newsworthiness and other significant news values such as credibility, objectivity, and context.” They also note that if newsworthiness “is a strong predictor of a story ‘passing through’ the journalists to the public…then Twitter may be a conduit through which citizen journalists or other members of the public can influence the mainstream news agenda.”

“The social silos of journalism? Twitter, news media and partisan segregation”: From Northeastern University and the University at Buffalo, published in New Media & Society. From John Wihbey, Kenneth Joseph, and David Lazer.

This study investigates the link between whom a journalist follows on Twitter and the partisanship of his or her work. The researchers find that political journalists who follow a lot of Twitter users with conservative views tend to use more “right-leaning” terms — “illegal immigrants,” “Obamacare” and “burdensome regulations” are examples. Meanwhile, the more liberal-leaning accounts a journalist follows, the more likely he or she is to use left-leaning terms such as “equal work,” “marriage equality” and “voting rights act.”

Researchers analyzed more than 300,000 news articles written by 644 journalists at 25 news outlets, searching for 114 terms they say represent a strong right- or left-leaning ideology. The research team, led by John Wihbey, an assistant professor at Northeastern University and former managing editor at Journalist’s Resource, paired that data with information on journalists’ Twitter networks to assign ideological ratings to journalists and their news organizations.  

The authors stress that they find no evidence that following certain Twitter accounts causes a reporter to write with bias. “There is no simple pipeline between social media and news media in terms of partisanship,” they write. “Yet the two are increasingly entangled, and study of their relationship is vital if researchers are to better understand the mechanics of the emerging ecosystem.”

Most of the 25 publications studied demonstrated a liberal-leaning bias. But three of the largest legacy media organizations — The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal — publish “fairly ideologically neutral or even fairly conservative content,” despite having “largely left-leaning Twitter networks,” the authors note.

“News brand attribution in distributed environments: Do people know where they get their news?”: From the University of Oxford, published in New Media & Society. By Antonis Kalogeropoulos, Richard Fletcher, and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen.

Do people remember where they get their news? And why does it matter? Researchers from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism examine these two questions.

Twenty years ago, audiences generally got their news directly from newspapers, magazines, TV broadcasts, and radio programs or by visiting news organizations’ websites. Today, there are lots of ways people can look for and access news, including through search engines, news aggregators, social media, and mobile messaging apps.

Kalogeropoulos, Fletcher, and Nielsen wanted to see how well people remember the name of the media outlet that produced a news report they found via a search engine or social media. For a month in early 2017, they tracked the browsing histories of 6,811 adults in the United Kingdom who agreed to install tracking software on their laptop or desktop computers. The researchers also surveyed participants 10 to 48 hours after they visited a news story.

Here’s what they found: When people went directly to a news website to access a news report, they remembered the name of the news outlet 81 percent of the time. But when they found a news report via a search engine, they were only able to correctly identify the news outlet 37 percent of the time. When they discovered a news item on social media, they remembered the name of the news organization that produced it 47 percent of the time.

The researchers also found that younger people were more likely to remember the news brands of news reports they accessed directly and found through social media. Individuals with higher education levels were more likely to remember the outlets that produced news they located via search engine.

These findings have implications for public trust in news and for the news business, the researchers explain. “We know that people use news branding (among other things) to assign trust to particular news stories,” they write. “It seems entirely plausible that if the link between the brand and the user is weakened, people’s overall level of trust in the news might begin to fall.”

“How Age Affects Journalists’ Adoption of Social Media as an Innovation: A multi-group SEM analysis”: From the University of Toledo, published in Journalism Practice. By Yanfang Wu.

It’s often assumed that there are differences in how journalists of different age groups feel about using social media to promote their work and interact with audiences. Wu’s findings indicate that “the digital divide in social media use among journalists is not whether younger and older journalists use social media; rather the divide is between the types of social media they prefer to use,” he explains.

Wu, an assistant professor in the University of Toledo’s Department of Communication, conducted an online survey of U.S. reporters and editors from a range of beats between March 18, 2016 and April 30, 2016. He asked questions about how journalists use social media and how they feel about incorporating these platforms into their work.

The researcher divided the 1,063 journalists who participated into three age groups. “Younger” journalists were 29 years old or younger. Those aged 30 to 49 were categorized as “middle-aged” while journalists aged 50 and older were labeled “older” journalists.

Wu found that younger journalists preferred Twitter while older ones favored Facebook and middle-aged journalists said they use both. He also discovered that, across age groups, journalists tended to have a more negative view of social media if they engaged more on Facebook.

“The more that middle-aged journalists interacted on Twitter, the more likely they tend to have a positive attitude toward social media,” Wu writes. “However, the more that younger and older journalists engaged on Twitter, the more they tended to have a negative attitude toward social media.”

Photo of the Stadtbibliothek Stuttgart by Nordseher.

POSTED     Nov. 20, 2018, 8 a.m.
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