Despite declining revenues and criticism from US President Donald Trump, mainstream media outlets — even smaller ones — are still able to sway public discussion, according to a five-year-long study conducted by Harvard University, which found when news organizations ran a number of stories on controversial topics in close succession, they significantly boosted public conversations about these topics.
Assessing the influence of news media is difficult — after all, researchers are precluded from monitoring activity in voting booths, or private discussions about politics between friends and peers.
Moreover, news organizations are rarely willing to allow outsiders interfere with their output — the Harvard researchers found this out directly, as it took five years get 48 US news organizations to agree to run their experiment, hence the length of the operation.
Instead of simply tracking the outlets that were already publishing, and analyzing the content's impact on public opinion, the researchers adopted an approach similar to that used in clinical trials to evaluate the effects of drugs.
They manipulated the type of news stories run, and then assigned a "treatment" week when stories would run, and a "control" week when they wouldn't. This way they could tell whether those particular stories had any effect on public discussion.
Most participating outlets were small, with under 200,000 pageviews per month during Summer 2017 — a few were midsized, such as Wisconsin-based magazine The Progressive, which generated over 250,000 pageviews per month.
Nonprofit news organization Truthout, based in Chicago, Illinois, represented a large outlet, with an estimated two million page views per month.
The team, led by Professor Gary King, director of the Institute for Quantitative Social Science at Harvard University, asked groups of two to five of these news outlets to write stories on broad policy areas, including race, immigration, climate, and reproductive rights.
For example, if the broad area was technology policy, the specific story might be what Uber drivers thought about self-driving cars. The outlets could choose the policy area, the stories to cover, and the type of articles to write, such as investigative reports or opinion pieces — but researchers could reject a story if it was outside a specific policy area.
Then, the researchers tossed a coin to decide during which of two consecutive weeks these clusters of stories on the same topics would run. Finally, they measured the number of tweets about both the specific stories, and surrounding broader policy issues during the week when the stories ran, compared to the week they didn't.
The team found Twitter posts on these topics increased by nearly 63 percent over the week in which the stories were posted — on average, American users wrote over 13,000 additional social media posts about specific policy areas on the day the stories ran on them, and in the subsequent five days. What's more, the cluster of stories swayed opinion by 2.3 percent in the ideological direction of opinion articles, clearly suggesting news media has a the ability to alter individual beliefs.
However, if the researchers had recruited large mainstream outlets, the spike in discussion would inevitably have been much bigger. When the team examined stories published by The New York Times on topics such as how fracking affects the quality of drinking water, they found Twitter posts about the broader issue of water quality increased by 300 percent in a mere day.
It's perhaps important to note only an approximate 20 percent of US citizens use Twitter, so the results may not be comprehensively applicable outside social media. Likewise, whether social media discussions have the capacity to actually change minds on fundamental issues is a question that remains unanswered.
The research does underline how Twitter users are an important element of the media's significant agenda-setting power, and exacerbate the mainstream echo-chamber that amplifies certain stories and angles, and ignores others.
The researchers hope to conduct further experiments to find out whether collaborative projects, such as the "Panama Papers" investigation have more seismic effects on public discussion.