College students and Twitter: News or nonsense?

— By Matt Ford

The social network is gaining credibility among students, who are relying on it increasingly for news updates

A study at the University of Maryland showed more than half of college students are using Twitter to get a significant proportion of their news.

92 percent of students surveyed by Maryland seniors Danielle Chazen and Matt Ford said Twitter is an “important tool for news consumers and journalists.” 51 percent reported they use Twitter as a primary news source.

“I rarely check different news outlets since [getting] a Twitter” account, one respondent said. “Web surfing is no longer needed with Twitter.”

One respondent put it simply: “[Twitter] is important because it is how news breaks today.”

Twitter on the rise; mostly for social reasons and news updates

Twitter, launched in July 2006, is host to tens of millions of users worldwide, who churn out about 65 million posts a day.

But its role in journalism, and in the lives of young users, is still up for debate.

Of 89 subjects, 76 percent said they used Twitter. According to the Maryland study, more people – about a third of the sample – obtained Twitter accounts to “experiment with a social network” instead of for school, work or social reasons.

But 92 percent of those surveyed said they now use it for social reasons. 86 percent use it to follow news.

Because Twitter disseminates news so quickly, several respondents said it can be a valuable voice box for news outlets.

“This tool is incredibly important because it is the quickest way to get news to the public,” one subject said. “Although [Twitter] may take away from newspapers, it is important that information gets to people as quickly as possible and Twitter does this.”

But Twitter users log on for more than news updates.

“Twitter allows me to stay updated on what’s going on with my friends and in the news,” one respondent said.

The students surveyed seemed to agree. 92 percent said they followed their friends on Twitter; 86 percent said they follow news outlets. Reporters and musicians were the next most popular Tweeters, tracked by 69 percent of students.

At the lower end of the spectrum, only 24 percent followed professors, 28 percent said they read politicians, and 54 percent said they followed athletes.

More users choose to follow instead of post

Most students have a passive role on Twitter, choosing to follow others instead of posting much on their own. 83 percent reported that following others is the primary reason they use Twitter instead of posting for their readers.

“I don’t see the point,” one respondent said of posting Tweets. “[I]t seems like Facebook stripped down to status updates. Most people are tweeting pointless drivel.”

Another student said posting did not make sense for most Twitter users.

“Companies can use it wisely, but I don’t understand why a singular person would have one,” they said.

Twitter used as quick, personalized news feed

Several respondents said they used Twitter primarily to organize their daily news intake.

“I don’t have to search multiple sites for my news,” one subject said. “I follow my [T]witter feed and everything is sent to a single source, often from direct sources.”

“I use Twitter more as an RSS feed than anything else,” one person said.

Several others commented on the usefulness of having one destination for personalized news.

“I feel it’s important for quick and current news,” another subject said.
“Twitter allows me to select what type of information I care about instead of going to websites and searching for it.”

Twitter is useful, but is it relevant? Students are split

While a majority of students agreed that Twitter could be important for their careers, there was a split in whether or not the social network is really necessary.

An overwhelming amount of students – 92 percent – said understanding Twitter was important for school and work reasons. Yet only 49 percent agreed that Twitter is a “necessary tool in the workplace and classroom.”

Some respondents extolled the virtues of having a respectable Twitter feed so as to get noticed by employers.

“The tool is very important to me,” one person said. “Because of my strong presence on Twitter, I have started blogging for a few websites, I’ve gotten my name out there, and, on a different note, I just really love getting my news that way.”

Others did not find Twitter as useful.

“[Twitter] is not important in my life,” one respondent said. “I use it mostly to follow celebrities and news outlets and only check it when I’m bored in class. When I tweet its [sic] to my friends and it is usually just nonsense so it does not affect my life.”

Some respondents still felt unsure about the role of Twitter five years after its creation.

“It is important, but I still have a lot to learn,” one student said. “I have not gotten to the point where it affects aspects of my life, but I plan on learning more about it and using it more.”

NEWS — UMD Study shows high level of voter misinformation in 2010 elections

A study conducted in December 2010 at the University of Maryland reveals voters were significantly misinformed about several major news items around the time of the 2010 midterm elections.

Voters also reported massive distrust in the media, which they said led to a climate of misinformation around the election.

“The media ought to be tracking this stuff,” said Steven Kull, an author of the study and the director of the Center on Policy Attitudes at Maryland. “They need to find out what audiences know and make efforts to correct it. This kind of study should be a permanent thing.”

Study tests knowledge about economy, tax cuts, Obama

The Maryland study asked 848 likely voters via an Internet survey 14 questions about various news items. For instance, readers were asked which president authorized bailout funding for General Motors and Chrysler. Only 28 percent answered correctly (that the bailout was issued by both President Bush and Obama): 53 said Obama, and 13 credited Bush.  Only 10 percent of voters said tax rates had gone down since Obama’s election, yet for 97% of Americans, the opposite was true. And only 56 percent of voters believed it had been proven Obama was born in the United States.

An image from the study "Misinformation and the 2010 election"

“There was quite a bit of misinformation in the discourse,” Kull said. “There is a total pattern of misinformation about what Obama had done and the Congress had done.”

The study asked several other questions about varying topics. For instance, only 55 percent of voters correctly guessed Obama had escalated troop levels in Afghanistan since taking office, and a mere 54 percent said the theory of climate change has been accepted by most scientists.

Some of the remaining questions were a perceived to be a bit more contentious than others.

“There were two areas where people criticized the study,” Kull said. “They largely ignored the rest, which is troubling.”

The questions that were under fire by some conservatives were about what economists said about the healthcare bill and the stimulus packages, Kull said.

The study asked whether most economists believed the stimulus package would increase jobs and if the healthcare bill was supposed to vastly increase the federal deficit. According to the study, the stimulus was expected to increase jobs and the healthcare bill would not increase the deficit.

Kull said there was no way to prove absolute truth in the case of these questions. But the researchers behind the study went off statements made by the Congressional Budget Office, a bipartisan organization that projects economic developments.

“We might have been better off making those questions more pointed,” he said. “There was not a survey done of all economists or anything. We went off what the CBO said, which is like a mirror of what most economists are thinking.”

Said Kull: “The CBO affects the whole process of what’s being done in the economy. They pull from a range of speculation. The process, it’s like a survey of economists.”

No winners: every news outlet does poorly, especially Fox

Researchers asked which news outlets the responders got their news from. Voters’ amounts of correct answers often corresponded with the type of news they consumed.

But across the board, responses showed irrefutable evidence of misinformation within the electorate.

Even news outlets that outperformed their peers cannot boast much given the poor accuracy of their consumers’ responses.

The study lists the news outlet with the most consumers who answered each question correctly. Of the 14 questions, the highest percentage to get a question correct was 80 percent — the amount of NPR and MSNBC consumers who answered that climate change is accepted by most scientists.

On one question, the best score by any group of consumers was 35 percent, when MSNBC viewers outperformed their peers in guessing the stimulus created jobs.

On six of the 14 questions, consistent MSNBC viewers outperformed all other news consumers, the top score of any news outlet. NPR and PBS were next, accruing the best percentages among its consumers in four questions. Fox News and CNN performed the worst, leading the pack on one question each.

The study went out of its way to criticize Fox News based on one disturbing phenomenon.

“With all other news sources, the more you watch it, the more likely you are to get the questions right,” Kull said. “With Fox, the more you watch it, the less likely you are to get the questions right.”

Fox users were 31 percent more likely to believe Obama was not born in the United States, 30 percent more likely to believe climate change is not accepted by scientists, and 26 percent more likely to believe the economy had worsened under Obama and the bailout packages.

Fox is not the only network that affirms bias. Left-leaning MSNBC’s viewers were 34 percent more likely to believe the U.S. Chamber of Commerce was using foreign money to support Republican candidates, an allegation proffered during the campaign cycle.

But Fox’s numbers were significantly worse than any other news outlet’s.

Kull said the “Fox Factor” should not be blamed on the audience, but on the news network itself.

“If you’re a Democrat – even if you disagree with what’s on Fox – you’re still more inclined to answer the questions wrong,” Kull said. “It’s not a feature of the audience.”

Conservatives react; Fox VP questions UMD

As the study was passed around via the Internet and blogs, several conservatives were upset with the findings, disputing the truthfulness of several questions asked and the objectivity of the study itself.

Some questions, critics argued, were not based on bulletproof fact, specifically the questions about the healthcare bill and the economy.

Fox News reacted especially harshly to the news that their regular viewers were misinformed more often than any other new outlets’.

Michael Clemente, the senior vice president of news for Fox, told this to The New York Times: “The latest Princeton Review ranked the University of Maryland among the top schools for having ‘Students Who Study The Least’ and being the ‘Best Party School’ – given these fine academic distinctions, we’ll regard the study with the same level of veracity it was ‘researched’ with.’”

The Times correctly pointed out that Maryland was No. 19 on the Princeton Review’s list of best party schools and was one of their “Best Northeastern Colleges.”

The good news: Skepticism among news consumers is high

Despite being significantly misinformed, the voters surveyed reported they were aware of the amount of false information being disseminated before the election.

Ninety-one percent of voters said they were presented with “information that seemed misleading or false” in the news media.

An image from the study "Misinformation and the 2010 election"

Kull said public trust in the media is plummeting.

“People are getting better at discriminating among sources,” he said. “People are hostile toward the media; almost as bad as politicians.

“Some networks let government people say what they want to say without question,” he continued. “This lets motivated parties say what they want without being challenged.”

The growing perception that the media is not doing its job is cause for concern, he said.

“There’s a lot of skepticism,” Kull said. “One needs to find the sources they feel confidence in and track those.”

Study: Readers gravitate to stories confirming their beliefs

UMD students find relationship between audience reception and story content

By Matt Ford

A study conducted by students at the University of Maryland concluded readers may submit slightly more positive reviews of stories that conform to their political biases, researchers said.

Two researchers, Chris Grady and Kristen Foca, seniors at Maryland, selected news stories and determined how readers rated them. Researchers then compared the ratings with the participants’ stated political affiliation.

The study consisted of 89 participants who submitted reviews on an experimental peer-review journalism website called NewsTrust.

“People tended to agree with the stories,” Grady said. “The stories weren’t necessarily overly divisive, and people took less hard approaches to it. There wasn’t a lot of variation.”

Biased assimilation

The study was hoping to test the theory of biased assimilation, a phenomenon that occurs when readers read and engage further with stories confirming their pre-existing biases.

Biased assimilation occurs when “people who hold strong opinions on complex social issues examine relevant empirical evidence in a biased manner,” according to a 1979 study by Stanford scientists featured in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

“[Readers] are apt to accept ‘confirming’ evidence at face value while subjecting ‘discontinuing’ evidence to critical evaluation,” the Stanford study said.

Biased assimilation is an interesting hurdle for journalists because, if the theory is accurate, a news organization’s credibility could be unfairly affected by running accurate stories that the readership may disagree with.

Or, readers who already have limitless choices online could bypass stories that they find disagreeable, limiting their scope of knowledge.

A 2008 study by the Pew Research Institute confirmed the presence of biased assimilation: “[Subjects] tend to polarize in their opinions along lines that reflect their cultural predispositions,” the report said.

The study by Maryland students, despite a few logistical complications, cautiously agreed with previous literature.

“Our study proved biased assimilation when the stories were in line with the peoples’ beliefs,” Grady said. “There was a slight boost in ratings when the readers were likely to agree with the stories based on their political affiliation.”

For instance, one opinion piece heavily criticizing a Republican legislation received an average score of 4.11 out of 5 from liberals, while only receiving a 3.9 from non-liberals.

NewsTrust and research

The news stories and their reviews can be found on NewsTrust, an organization experimenting with a ratings system to determine the credibility of news stories. Open to the public, NewsTrust selects stories from Maryland news outlets and submits them to its members, asking them to rate the stories’ balance, fairness, quality and relevance.

Its transparent process could potentially have an impact on online news, as it is one of the first websites of its kind to allow readers to engage in a peer review process.

To determine the political tilt of selected NewsTrust stories, the researchers rated several stories based on a few criteria. Among them, the quality of sources in each story, the number of sources used, and the time spent discussing each side of the central argument in the story.

The researchers also judged stories based on two noteworthy characteristics: whether multimedia was attached to the story, and how much time in the story was devoted to explaining, rather than expanding on, an issue.

Multimedia linked to a story would show the story was relevant, Grady said. Unaccompanied stories, he said, are often not as appealing to readers.

Stories that took time in the story to explain the central issues at hand in a neutral tone would be more likely to be free of bias, the researchers said. With more detailed explanation, the readers of the story would have a more full picture of the story and be more likely to form opinions based on fact, not sources quoted in the story that were more likely to be biased.

The researchers felt NewsTrust was a useful medium for rating news stories.

“NewsTrust is a pretty effective news rating system, as long as you have people who have some sense of what is good journalism,” Grady said. “Most people who go on there would have some sense of what that is, but you always have that risk that someone goes on there and doesn’t know what that is.”

The ratings for the four selected stories, the researchers said, reflected a boost because of the sample’s liberal tilt. The researchers said the stories they used mostly confirmed likely liberal biases. Of the 42 in the sample who submitted their political affiliation, only five identified themselves as conservatives; the rest were either liberal or moderate.

Do readers’ biases impact their ratings?

Despite only a small uptick in ratings, the researchers felt it was significant evidence of liberal biased assimilation. But its effects were smaller than they anticipated.

“It should be noted that those with Liberal political leanings tended to rate the Liberal stories higher, which does give some credence to the positive aspects of the theory of bias[ed] assimilation,” their report said.

“The lack of noticeable differences between the Liberal reviewers and the other groups is what seems to suggests that bias[ed] assimilation may not be as poignant as theorized in regards to stories that may not directly oppose what someone believes,” it continued.


Social networking and journalism

This post is a response to this story, which reveals that “78% [of people] would change information they publish about themselves online if they thought the material would later be reproduced in the mainstream media.”

On social networking websites, public information and personal details often are side-by-side. The question for journalists is: “How can you tell which is which?”

The line in the sand between public domain and privacy has not been clearly drawn in cyberspace just yet. Can a journalist who interviews you — or wants to use you in a story for any other reason — rely on your social media sites to obtain information from you?

Most of the time, I would guess the answer would be a strong no. On Facebook, for instance, most people have adjusted their privacy settings such that they can essentially become invisible to outsiders. Or, most users will require a Facebook friendship before another user is able to access any information.

But what about blogs? Or unprotected Twitter feeds? Or YouTube videos? Are they public domain?

A BBC poll states that “Almost 80% of social networking site users would be more careful about the details they put online if they knew the media might use them.”

But can a journalist be blamed for reporting something that can be accessible as easily as typing your name into a Google search? At some point, shouldn’t the user be responsible for what they put on the internet?

Consider this scenario: you have a Twitter feed, which you use for recreation and personal enjoyment, and you are suddenly are one of the few to witness a major news item.

A journalist looking for sources might well be attracted to your Twitter feed, which you used to tweet observations from the scene.

Which of the following is unethical:

  1. Publishing tweets in a news story without the author’s consent?
  2. Mentioning a person’s Twitter account in a story about the news event?
  3. Contacting the person and asking them about their comments?

I would imagine that most people would object to the first scenario. But if the Twitter feed is unprotected, one has to assume that it is public domain. The Internet is too easily navigable to post sensitive material without an awareness that anyone can read it. Nearly every social networking site, from Facebook to Twitter to Myspace, has privacy settings that can restrict outside views. If you don’t take the time to adjust the privacy settings, you shouldn’t be surprised if a journalist can read your information.

Because, after all, if a journalist can,  so can anyone else.

Reaction to NPR Podcast

Note: this post is a response to an NPR podcast that is available here.

Just a few days ago, Rupert Murdoch and Newscorp launched an unprecedented journalistic experiment — the iPad Daily, a newspaper released exclusively on the iPad. A discussion on NPR enumerated the goals of the iPad Daily application as such:

1) It will recreate a somewhat romanticized experience with news that some believe is missed by consumers. Reading a newspaper in your hands, Daily innovators hope, is a sensation that is immensely personal and missed by news consumers on some level.

2) It will successfully compete with online news outlets that publish content for free, ultimately raising profit for the Daily and, maybe, allowing online news publishers to finally charge for their online operations.

3) It will be seen as futuristic, bold, innovative and original in the most uncertain news climate in American history, thus making a profit.

There is no question that Murdoch should be commended for taking a huge risk in the news industry. If the Daily works, the landscape of online news could change forever.

There are so many things to like about the Daily, especially knowing that they will be looking to hire young journalists (like my classmates and I) if it succeeds.

But I don’t think it will work — yet. Here’s why.

1) Older generations overestimate the importance of “holding a newspaper” to younger generations. And since younger generations — to a large extent — are the ones holding the iPads, I don’t believe that the feeling of holding a newspaper will hold the same romantic qualities it does to, say, my parents.

2) The iPad is, for now, still a fringe technology. We still don’t really know what the iPad is yet. When you ask people who own iPads what they use them for, a lot of times, there isn’t really a great (or convincing) answer. To me (I am an iPod-touch owner and a new iPhone owner), I believe the iPad is just a bigger version of both. What is so great about iPads besides how fun they are to mess with? They cost more, yet they do the same things, as a phone, and do less than my MacBook (yes, I am an Apple groupie).

As a result, until a tablet computer can really overtake the laptop in terms of practicality and usefulness, I don’t think the iPad will become a major technology, thus damning the Daily for no real fault of its own.

3) People don’t want to pay for news if they don’t have to. And the Daily does not have the cache of the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, NPR, etc. In fact, a lot of people — especially, I would think, the kind of people who buy iPads — will probably be turned off when they hear the name “Rupert Murdoch” aligned with any news organization. I think the brains behind the Daily are vain to assume that they are, as the NPR interview called them, “content creators.” There are already so many voices out there on the internet and in the media that in a time when people distrust media so unanimously, they are unlikely to turn to a new source, especially one they have to pay for.

But there is no question that there is a future in moveable newspapers (a term I may have just invented … I mean to say, newspapers that update often like a webpage on your mobile device). I think the idea in and of itself is brilliant — a newspaper that is your one-stop shop for news, that updates frequently and looks clean on a mobile, digital device. But I imagine it to be a bit more like, although hopefully less cluttered and sensationalistic, the Huffington Post — an aggregator, a community watering-hole, and a center for all kinds of debate and news-sharing across the world.

Murdoch has taken a gutsy step into the journalistic pond, so to speak, and the ripples are already being felt and examined by professionals around the industry. If we know anything about the journalistic climate of today, it’s that we don’t know what’s coming next. I think I join many others in saying that I’m anxious to see what happens with the iPad Daily.

The Daily Show: Where does it fit in the news climate?

Despite the advances of the Internet, polls show television remains the most widely-used platform to get news. But television news faces a stiff challenge; some say the Internet will overtake television in terms of news consumption, citing increasing comfort with technology and more choice as two possible reasons.

But television news faces another, perhaps less respected challenger, in the form of a new type of news broadcast. Comedian Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show” and, to a lesser degree, Stephen Colbert’s “The Colbert Report,” are highly popular among young people and are increasingly being viewed as a legitimate news sources among their consumers, despite being marketed as comedy shows. (Case in point: both shows are on Comedy Central.)

Stunning studies illuminate that regular viewers of The Daily Show are equally or more informed than viewers of network news. In fact, a 2007 study by the Pew Foundation shows that the average viewer of The Daily Show is tied with regular newspaper readers as the most informed news consumers.

Why? Is it just because the viewers of Stewart’s show tend to be more educated? Is the Daily Show just a supplement for people who already have a firm grounding in the day’s news by the time they watch it at 11?

Probably not. More studies, including one by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, reveal that the amount of relevant content discussed on The Daily Show is nearly equivalent to network news shows. “Among the study’s findings: Washington-related pieces, foreign affairs and politics accounted for almost one-half (47%) of the show’s content,” the study says. “In that regard, by the numbers, The Daily Show closely resembles in its topic agenda the news menu of many cable ‘news’ shows.”

So The Daily Show, despite the occasional lapse into slapstick humor and silly interviews, is really not all that different from a lot of network news shows in terms of how much time it spends talking about real issues. As a result, Jon Stewart finds himself (as of 2008) ranking among the top five most-admired newscasters of his generation... despite not being a real newscaster.

Is The Daily Show a reliable source of news, night-in, night-out? No. But Jon Stewart is perhaps more important of a symbol as he is a newscaster. He points out inconsistency and hypocrisy among politicians and news networks alike, encouraging people to be skeptical, albeit perhaps a bit cynical.

There are two ways to look at Stewart’s show: a half-brained attempt at disseminating (largely biased) news to a bored and entertainment-needy public, or a comedian’s noble attempt to inform people and keep them laughing while doing so.

At this point, most Americans seem to prefer the latter.

Politico — What I’d change

As you’ve been able to discern from my comments about Politico’s web operation throughout the semester, I really think Politico does a lot of things right. Their design is unbelievably clean and easy to navigate. Their content varies from the whimsical to the serious, and carves out a clear role in the news-gathering process as the website that readers shouldn’t turn to first, but should come for analysis after they have the scoop about what’s going on. Its readers have a significant role as participants in meaningful debates, including the ability to have posts displayed side-by-side with experts in “Arena” discussions.

But Politico is not perfect. And in order to improve its website in the future, here are some of my suggestions.

Idea #1: Team up with a breaking news site.

If a reader doesn’t have time — or interest — in reading about the analysis of recent news but wants to know what is going on in the political world, Politico is not a good destination. For example, when I wanted to know the candidate Supreme Court Justice that President Obama nominated a few days ago, I didn’t think to go to Politico. I went to The Washington Post. In a world where online media consumers have millions of choices about where to go for information, I think Politico should make itself present on sites devoted to breaking news. If it was to team up with any respected news organization, Politico would receive innumerable hits from readers on that organization’s website looking for in-depth analysis about major news events. Furthermore, they would be able to recommend a news source that would likely re-route readers back to Politico if a reader came to Politico’s site and was forced to read analysis about a news event they knew nothing about. I’m sure a major news organization would be dying for the hits Politico receives on a daily basis, and Politico could certainly use a more mainstream crowd on its website. Thus, I would advise joining forces with a general news organization devoted to breaking news so Politico can supplement someone else’s breaking news with peerless analysis.

Idea #2 — More gadgets.

If we’ve learned anything from watching presidential elections unfold on television and on the Web over the last few years, we’ve learned that Web users love playing around with fancy gizmos that help them predict the future or help them make sense of the current balance of power. Granted, the next election season is a few months away, and Politico may already have a plan to unleash fun new interactive maps and predictors on its website. But sites like gain tremendous following from people who want to play around with infinite scenarios. I can’t find it anymore, but at least one website a few years ago had an interactive game in which users could choose President Obama’s then-future Cabinet from a list of likely candidates. Games like these are endlessly fascinating to web media consumers. And given that a guessing game can be run about any political scenario, I argue Politico should parlay more interactive games and gadgets into its repertoire.

Idea #3 — Go Local.

Clearly, Politico is a news operation focused on analyzing politics in Washington, a role which they fulfill extremely well. But enfranchising other areas of the country would increase its readership by leaps and bounds.

I respect that Politico aims to be hyper-specific, and that what’s going on in behind the scenes in Washington is of interest to a great many people. But imagine if Politico were able to expand that behind-the-scenes coverage into governor’s races or senatorial races in different states. What if Politico were to pick a few elections for every political cycle that appear to be highly contested and followed them with the same tenacity and depth that they cover the president or the world of Capitol Hill lobbying? Readers concerned with what’s happening in Washington would likely be interested in elections around the country and readers from around the country concerned with a high-profile race happening close to them would be drawn to the site as well. People love to read about elections and make guesses about what the future balance of power will be. Getting in-depth coverage and analysis of political strategy, daily maneuvers and other aspects of campaigns across the country could involve more readers and provide ideas for political strategists across the country who can keep up with what their peers are doing in elections elsewhere.

Those are just three ideas for how Politico could change in order to involve more readers. But Politico is one of the few news outlets that is actually making money, so maybe they shouldn’t put too much stock into my lowly ideas. Or should they?

Thank you for reading over the last few weeks and I hope you’ve found my analysis enjoyable and/or insightful. Good luck!

— Matt