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Right Now | Power of the Press

The Newsmakers

March-April 2018

Illustration by Dan Page

Illustration by Dan Page

When they contacted 48 small news-media outlets in 2011, Weatherhead University Professor Gary King and his colleagues were well aware of the peculiarity of their proposal. Asking professional journalists to allow a group of researchers to tell them what topics to cover, and when to publish stories, was something that had never been done before, and contradicted any reputable outlet’s code of ethics. But King felt certain that such cooperation was necessary to prove a correlation between issues the American news media choose to write about and the subsequent national conversation.

To measure the impact of news-coverage tone and topics on public discourse, the researchers had to find a way to listen in on conversations taking place all over the country. Twitter proved an excellent forum, because users publicly engage with one another on topics like race, immigration, and education—and by doing so, King believes, those Americans are the ones who are ultimately shaping the national conversation. “In the past, we would have run a public-opinion survey,” he says. “But we weren’t interested in hearing just anyone’s opinions. We wanted to specifically look at Americans who are willing to publicly express their opinions on important issues” through social-media platforms like Twitter. King says the challenge of finding news outlets willing to participate in the study was made easier due to a shared interest in the study’s results: “Journalists want their stories to shape the national conversation––who wants to write stories no one is reading or talking about? Our work presented an opportunity to really quantify their impact.” 

Because the outlets weren’t willing to sacrifice their reputations for the project’s sake, King and his researchers had to find a way to make their research goals compatible with the inherently competitive nature of newswriting. To this end, his team drew inspiration from “pack journalism,” a process in which competing outlets occasionally collaborate to get as many eyes on an important story as possible. They appoint a project manager from within the group to coordinate and share reporting resources leading up to publication––the Panama Papers coverage was a recent example. King and his team appointed themselves the project managers, enabling participating outlets such as The Nation, The Chicago Reporter, and Ms. to release similar stories between October 2014 and March 2016 on a previously agreed upon topic, like taxes, during one particular week. The outlets also agreed not to run stories on the topic during the subsequent week, to allow the researchers to study shifts in public conversation.

King’s team also took special care to ensure that the experiments were conducted during relatively calm news weeks when the public’s attention wouldn’t be dominated by new legislation, a major election, or political scandal. Their results showed a 62.7 percent increase in Twitter conversations about a policy area in the week when outlets agreed to write about that issue. Furthermore, when an outlet expressed an opinion on a given topic (favoring the new tax plan, for example), public opinion shifted by 2.3 percent in the direction of the view expressed in the article. 

The study’s results show that journalists also wield significant power in what King calls “setting the agenda” for national conversation across party lines. “If an outlet publishes a piece about abortion but calls it ‘reproductive rights,’ then both Republicans and Democrats are going to be calling that issue ‘reproductive rights’ in their discussions on Twitter––the outlet has determined how we refer to an issue.” This is true, he adds, even though those Twitter conversations will likely be occurring within communities known as “filter bubbles,” which form because people elect to follow those who share similar ideological views on social-media platforms.

One of the most significant implications of the team’s findings, King believes, is the potential to embolden some news outlets toward activism. For example, a journalist who feels that the pollutants being released into the atmosphere aren’t receiving sufficient attention could choose to cover climate change in order to increase discussion about the topic. The journalist may also espouse an opinion about companies that refuse to divest (in order to influence public opinion) and refer to the issue as “climate danger,” thereby pointing the agenda in the desired direction. Such power, King says, also comes with great responsibility. “Our research shows that one journalist can really shape the national conversation, which is why it’s so important that journalists adhere to strict ethical standards. If just one person skimps on those ethics, it can really have a noticeable impact.” 

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