• Small Media has Big Impact

    "Just three small media outlets can boost conversation on an issue by nearly 63%, the Harvard-led study"

    Praneta Jha

    March 28, 2018


    Awed by the Big Media? Think again. A new study by American political scientists has found that small news media outlets can have a dramatic impact on the “national conversation” around topics pertaining to public policy.

    Even if just three small media outlets (with an average readership of 50,000 each) write a story about a particular issue for a week, the volume of public discussion on that topic across social media can increase strikingly by more than 62% (relative to a day’s volume), the researchers found in their randomized media experiments. The partisan balance in the public opinion – those for and against an issue – can also be swayed remarkably, as it was affected by several percentage points, they found.

    A team led by Gary King of Harvard University, along with Benjamin Schneer of Florida State University and Ariel White of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, carried out this 5-year-long study. Published in the journal Science on November 10, this is the first large-scale study of its kind to measure media impact on public expression and national debates.

    The researchers enlisted 48 mostly small- to medium-sized news media outlets, about half of which were represented by The Media Consortium, an association of independent news outlets in the United States. The association also assisted the researchers coordinate with the outlets and helped in other aspects of the study, as the scientists acknowledge.

    King and his team then identified 11 broad policy areas — race, immigration, jobs, abortion, climate, food policy, water, education policy, refugees, domestic energy production, and reproductive rights.

    The study has relevance for India too where the mainstream agenda is decided by the pro-corporate interests of the big media houses while fake news is rampant on social media. More often than not, stories that affect the lives of the vast majority of people, people outside the minority segment of the middle class and above, do not get enough attention. This phenomenon was starkly on display, for instance, during the massive workers’ protest (Mahapadav) before the Parliament in Delhi, from Novemeber 9 to 11, which faced a blackout by the Indian media.

    “Our study’s implications suggest every journalist wields a major power, and so has an important responsibility,” King told the Harvard Gazette.

    The researchers chose two to five of the selected news outlets to write articles on subjects the researchers approved, and publish them on randomly assigned dates when they predicted there wouldn’t be any surprise development related to that topic area. This was done over a two-week period — the first being the treatment week, when the outlets published the stories, and the second being the control week, when the researchers measured the buzz on social media on the subject.

    In both treatment and control weeks, the researchers used analytics tools to monitor the national conversation in social media posts — particularly on Twitter.

    They found that their intervention increased the discussion in the particular policy area by 62.7%, accounting for 13,166 additional posts over the treatment week. And these effects were similar across population subgroups, distributed relatively evenly across political affiliation, gender, and region of the United States.

    The results “demonstrate that exposure to the news media causes Americans to take public stands on specific issues, join national policy conversations, and express themselves publicly—all key components of democratic politics—more often than they would otherwise,” they write.

    This study assumes importance in today’s world of Web 2.0 that has fragmented and diffused the consumption of news, with an increasing number of people getting news and forming views through social media. This has also given rise to the phenomenon of fake news, false alarms as well as increasing, and often uninformed, polarisation in the public opinion. This is underlined by the growing tendency of the so-called Big Media to operate in bubbles and its utter failure sometimes to predict the mood of the nation — for instance, what happened in the 2016 US presidential elections.

    Indeed, as the study notes, “the ability of the media to powerfully influence our national conversation also suggests profound implications for future research on “fake news” potentially having similar effect sizes or “filter bubbles” potentially reducing or directing these effects.”


    First published in Newclick.

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