Sociologists’ Experiment Finds Large Effects From Small News Outlets

Jason Alcorn (@jasonalcorn),  MediaShift .

This article was originally published by MediaShift

Even small publishers have a large effect on the national discourse, according to a new paper published in Science on the effects of news. “Exposure to the news media,” the study states, “causes Americans to take public stands on specific issues, join national policy conversations, and express themselves publicly.”

The research aims to quantify the effect of news media. Put in terms that are increasingly common when talking about journalism: What is the impact of news organizations?

The act of publishing news is influential in still-surprising and robust ways.

The study by Harvard professor Gary King and collaborators found that a few, mostly small news outlets publishing simultaneously in a broad area of public policy concern increased the volume of conversation on social media by 19 percent the day after publication. Over a full week, the volume was increased 63 percent relative to the average day’s volume. The number of unique authors increased as well, and the composition of opinion changed in the direction of the published articles.

News outlets it appears, even in the face of social media algorithms, the echo chambers of political polarization and a barrage of digital information, have a profound and measurable effect on national discourse.

On of the challenges with research on media impact is the lack of control researchers have over the publication of news itself. You can’t exactly randomize the news. The need to maintain editorial independence and the timeliness of reporting means there have been relatively few large-scale, controlled experiments attempting to experimentally measure the effect of news media.

The research team found a way around this by actually collaborating with news outlets, using the first three years of the five-year study to build trust. “Frankly, when we began talks with the researchers in 2012, what they required seemed impossible,” Media Consortium executive director Jo Ellen Green Kaiser wrote on MetricShift in 2016. However, the researchers began attending industry conferences and worked with the Media Consortium to test the experiment with a small group of participants.

In the end, the study recruited 48 news outlets who agreed, in small groups, to publish at the same time on a broad policy area agreed-to beforehand and typical of the the outlets regular coverage. The 11 policy areas were race, immigration, jobs, abortion, climate, food policy, water, education policy, refugees, domestic energy production and reproductive rights. The media outlets retained full control over what was published, as well as the option to opt-out at any time. (A list of outlets that participated fully in the experiment is available in an appendix to the report.)

For their part, the researchers picked a two-week publication window when they expected a slow news cycle and randomized the publication date to either the first week or the second week. They then were able to measure and compare changes in the volume and composition of conversation on Twitter between the publication week and the control week.

Jason Alcorn (@jasonalcorn) is the Metrics Editor for MediaShift and an independent consultant working with non-profits, newsrooms and philanthropy.

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