SMPA Partners with Project for Excellence in Journalism for Twitter Study

November 14, 2011

Samara Sit, School of Media and Public Affairs
202-994-5349; [email protected]
Tom Rosenstiel, Project for Excellence in Journalism

How Mainstream Media Outlets Use Twitter:
Content Analysis Shows an Evolving Relationship

WASHINGTON – Twitter use is prevalent in news organizations today, but it is used in limited ways, according to a new study by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism and The George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs that examined how news institutions and reporters use the technology in their daily news outreach.

The study finds that news organizations use their Twitter feeds in limited ways—primarily as another vehicle of dissemination for their own material. Sharing outside content and engaging directly with audiences are rare occurrences, the report finds.

The study also reveals that the news agenda on Twitter closely matches the agenda put forward through these news outlets' legacy platforms. Indeed, for the week examined, four of the top five stories across the Twitter feeds studied were also among the top stories in the legacy outlets.

Students from Professor Kimberly Gross and Professor Robert Entman's Senior Seminars at The George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs spent a semester coding the data of thousands of tweets, providing content analysis and applying the theories learned in the classroom to real-world research.

"This study gave students the opportunity to work on a significant research project about an evolving medium," says Professor Gross, one of the co-authors of the study. "As most of our understanding of Twitter is based on anecdotal evidence, collecting and analyzing empirical data is very valuable to our understanding of it."

School of Media and Public Affairs alumnus Jesse Holcomb (M.A. '09), now a Research Associate for the Project for Excellence in Journalism, provided a link between students and the Pew Research Center. "This study benefits from a large group of students for whom Twitter and other social media are like a native tongue," he says. "And we value in helping these smart minds conduct real-time research."

News organizations may well be using Twitter to tap into public sentiment in other ways—such as reading comments from followers. But publically at least, the study finds, these organizations seem not to be taking full advantage of Twitter's interactive and reportorial opportunities.

"There are similarities here with the early days of the web, when news organizations rarely linked to anything outside their own walls," says Amy Mitchell, Deputy Director of the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism. "It bears watching whether the interactive and social attributes of Twitter eventually become a larger part of what news organizations do in this realm."

These are among the findings from the report, which analyzed more than 3,600 tweets from 13 major news organizations over the course of one week. The report is a collaboration between the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism and The George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs.

Among the findings:

  • The news outlets studied varied widely in the number of Twitter feeds or channels offered and in how frequently they posted. On average, the news organizations offered 41 different feeds. The Washington Post, at the top of the list, offered 98, more than twice the average. The Daily Caller, on the other hand, offered a single Twitter feed. The level of activity also ranged widely. While as a group the outlets in the sample averaged 33 tweets a day on their main organizational Twitter feed, that number ranged from close to 100 a day to fewer than 10.
  • These news organizations were much more similar in the focus of their Twitter activity. The vast majority of the postings promoted the organizations' own work and sent users back to their websites. On the main news feeds, fully 93% of the postings over the course of the week offered a link to a news story on the organization's own website.
  • News organizations rarely used Twitter as a reporting tool or to curate or recommend information that originated elsewhere. Just 2% of the tweets from the main news feed analyzed were information-gathering in nature—seeking views or first-hand accounts from readers. And only 1% of tweets studied were "retweets" that were reposted from a Twitter feed outside the organization.
  • Popular individual reporters were not much more likely than the news institutions to use Twitter as a reporting tool or as a way to share information produced by those outside their own news organization. An examination of the Twitter feeds of 13 individual journalists—the most followed at each outlet studied—found that 3% of their tweets solicited information, a similar rate as the institutions overall. Six percent (6%) of their tweets were retweets of postings from outside entities (compared with 1% on the institutional Twitter feeds).
  • Researchers also examined the Twitter feeds of one particular news beat—health reporters. These reporters made more use of the reportorial ability of Twitter, though they still produced far more tweets that disseminated their own material. On average, 6% of the health reporters' postings over the course of the week studied solicited information, twice that of the most-followed journalists (3%).

Researchers examined the Twitter feeds of 13 major U.S. news sources at three levels: the main feed representing the news outlet (like @washingtonpost) as well as the feeds of the individual journalists who had the largest number of Twitter followers. In addition, researchers wanted to see how journalists with a specialty beat might use the social networking tool, and thus health reporters at each outlet were examined. (The health beat was one of the most consistent beats across these news sites—eleven of the organizations have a specified health reporter with a Twitter feed.) In all, then, 37 different Twitter feeds were studied. Researchers examined every Twitter post, or tweet, in these feeds over the course of one week—chosen because it resembled a typical news week, as opposed to one absorbed with a major breaking news event. A total of 3,646 tweets were examined from the week of February 14-20, 2011 (2,969 main organizational tweets and 677 journalist tweets.) In addition, that content was compared to 972 stories found on the original platforms of those news outlets from the same week.

The Project for Excellence in Journalism is a part of the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan, nonprofit fact tank that provides information on the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world. The Pew Research Center does not take positions on policy issues. It is funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

The School of Media and Public Affairs (SMPA) is dedicated to the rigorous study of journalism and political communication with a focus on understanding the impact media have on how societies inform and govern, connect and communicate. As media undergo transformational change, SMPA's goal is to advance both theoretical insight and innovative practice. SMPA conducts ground-breaking research, offers inspiring teaching, encourages hands-on work in the field and in our production facilities and engages directly with thought-leaders in Washington, D.C. and around the world. To learn more about GW's School of Media and Public Affairs, visit or follow SMPA on Twitter.

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