How U.S. Reporters Are Using Facebook, Twitter

Image credit: Sean MacEntee. Retrieved via Flickr and shared under a Creative Commons license. Click for more information.
Image credit: Sean MacEntee. Retrieved via Flickr and shared under a Creative Commons license. Click for more information.

Social media are used to connect with people and share information, so it is not surprising that reporters are using social media platforms in their work – connecting with sources and collecting information are fundamental aspects of journalism. A recent paper offers insights into how, and to what extent, newspaper journalists are using Facebook and Twitter in their reporting.

The paper, “Tapping Into a New Stream of (Personal) Data: Assessing Journalists’ Different Use of Social Media,” was published online April 4 in Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly. The paper was co-authored by Arthur Santana, of San Diego State University, and Toby Hopp, of the University of Alabama. This post offers only a broad overview of the work, and I encourage you to read the paper itself.

For the study, the researchers asked 1,500 reporters at the largest 137 U.S. daily newspapers to participate in an online survey.  480 reporters actually completed the survey, of which 82.7 percent had more than 10 years of experience in the newsroom (and 62.7 percent had more than 20 years of experience).

Only 22.7 percent of study participants said that Facebook was either an “important” or “very important” tool for their reporting. On the other hand, 51.7 percent of participants said Twitter was an important or very important tool.

Facebook and Twitter were both used to request “story-relevant information” from social media contacts and to conduct background research. However, only Twitter was also associated with using one’s social media network to find sources. Neither Facebook nor Twitter were associated with generating story ideas.

Additional statistical analysis suggest that Twitter may be more valuable than Facebook for identifying sources, whereas Facebook may be more valuable for performing “research-related duties.”

The survey also found that 51.9 percent of study participants worked in newsrooms that had a formal policy for use of Facebook; 37.9 percent said their newsroom actively restricted their use of Facebook for work. For Twitter, 70.4 percent worked for papers that had a formal policy, and 19.8 percent said their newsroom restricted use of Twitter for work.

The presence of official newsroom policies on Facebook or Twitter, Santana and Hopp note, “did not seem to influence journalists’ use of social media for either source or research-related activities.”

However, placing restrictions on social media use, unsurprisingly, did influence how and whether reporters made use of the social media platforms.

As the paper states: “journalists working for organizations that restricted their use of Twitter were significantly less likely to use Twitter to query followers, conduct research, or generate story ideas. Journalists working for organizations that placed restrictions on their Facebook use were, similarly, less likely to use Facebook to query friends or conduct research. Furthermore, the data suggested that journalists working for organizations that restrict their Facebook use were less likely to draw sources from their social network.”

It’s interesting stuff, and highlights the fact that reporters are willing and able to make use of whatever (ethical) tools are available to develop their stories – even reporters who were in the newsroom a decade before Twitter was launched in 2006 (i.e., never confuse experience with decrepitude).

It’s also a signal that anyone interested in tracking developing news stories would be well served to have a presence on Twitter. And one note of particular interest for public information officers (PIOs): most reporters aren’t using Twitter to identify story leads. So if you’re spending a lot of energy there to pitch stories, it may not be the best use of your resources.

Lastly, it’s worth noting that this is not the first paper to assess how journalists are using social media. For example, the 2014 report “The American journalist in a digital age: A first look,” from Lars Willnat and David Weaver of Indiana University, offered up a ton of interesting information based on a survey of 1,080 reporters. (The report focuses on social media in chapters 18 through 20.)

For example, the 2014 report found that 56.2 percent of reporters surveyed used social media for research purposes, and that 54.1 percent used it to find sources. That’s roughly consistent with the recent paper from Santana and Hopp, though it doesn’t break the social media use down by platform.

However, the 2014 report also said that 59.8 percent of study participants “regularly used [social media]…to identify story ideas.” That’s a dramatic difference from Santana and Hopp’s recent findings. Does this mean reporting habits have changed dramatically over the course of a couple years? Is it due to differences in the reporters surveyed? That’s not clear. But I’m curious.

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