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Social media is not the enemy of journalism, Pew report indicates

by: Amy Gahran |

June 21, 2011

Social media is not the enemy of journalism, Pew report indicates

The internet and social media often get accused of creating an “echo chamber” effect—encouraging people to cocoon themselves with people and news/information that reflect their existing views or demographic characteristics. But new research from the Pew Internet and American Life Project contradicts this widely held belief.

This could make it more important than ever for journalists and news organizations to engage with people via social media, in order to benefit communities and democracy…

By Amy Gahran

The new Pew report, Social Networking Sites and Our Lives, is based on a survey of 2255 US adults, completed in November 2010. Pew found that nearly 80% of American adults use the internet, and about 60% of internet users (nearly half of all adults) also use at least one social networking service such as Twitter, Facebook, or MySpace. The average age of adult social networking users is 38. So clearly, social media is now a mainstream communication and media channel for a substantial part of the core audience for most US news organizations.

According to Pew, Facebook is the most popular social networking service: 92% of people who user social networking services are on Facebook, 29% use MySpace, 18% used LinkedIn, and 13% use Twitter. There’s considerable overlap—many people use multiple social networking services.

Engagement with different kinds of people

Everyone has a social network (the people we know and interact with). For many, the internet and social media help them expand, maintain, and engage their social network. Pew found that internet users actually tend to have a more diverse overall social network (scoring 43 on Pew’s diversity scale) than people who do not use the internet (average diversity score: 38).

Use of social networking services doesn’t seem to affect social network diversity. According to Pew: “We find no relationship between the use social networking services and the diversity of people’s overall social networks. Use is not associated with a more or less diverse network.”

That said, Pew did note that within each of the four social networking services its research examined, social network diversity varies. LinkedIn users have the most diverse social networks (score: 47). Twitter users have an average diversity score of 42; Facebook, 39; and MySpace, 37.

Generally, blogging seems to increase the diversity of your social network. According to Pew: “The average blogger scores more than three points higher than other internet users [on social network diversity].”

Exposure to a diversity of views

Pew’s survey also explored perspective taking: “The ability to adopt the viewpoint of another person, or to consider ‘both sides of an issue.’ [This] is also associated with pro-social behaviors directed at improving other people’s welfare.”

Rating perspective taking on a scale of 0-100, Pew found that the average American scored 64—with no significant difference between people who use the internet, and non-users. However, “Once we control for demographic characteristics that are also likely to predict perspective taking (such as age and education), we found a relationship between perspective taking and the use of specific social networking platforms.”

Intriguingly, Pew found that MySpace users (who exhibited the lowest social network diversity, as noted above) tend to have a greater ability to consider multiple sides of an issue. “For example, a MySpace user who visits the site about six times per month tends to score eight points higher on the perspective taking scale.”

Local and political engagement

In 2008, Pew found that users of social networking services were less likely than others to know the names of at least some of their neighbors. But in 2010, Pew found no such disparity.

Similarly, when Pew inquired about people’s involvement with voluntary civic/social organizations, they found that such activity was up sharply overall (74% of all US adults in 2010, compared to 65% in 2008). Social networking service use does not seem to affect this activity significantly—with the exception of MySpace users, who have a marginally lower rate of participation in such groups.

Users of LinkedIn are much more likely to be politically engaged than users of other services. According to Pew: “14% of LinkedIn users attended a political rally, 36% tried to persuade someone to vote, and 79% reported that they did or intended to vote. MySpace users are the least politically active. ... Since LinkedIn users tend to be older and more educated, and MySpace users tend to be younger and less educated, this explains most of the difference.”

After correcting for those demographic factors, Pew found that “internet users—and Facebook users in particular—were more likely to be politically involved than similar Americans.”

Lessons for journos and news orgs

Historically, news organizations and journalists played a key role in ensuring that people get exposed to the quality and diversity of news and information that support civic engagement and sound decision making. As gatekeepers and agenda setters, news professionals held an important social and civic role. But the rise of the internet and social media have eroded that role—a shift that makes many people profoundly uncomfortable.

Consequently, in recent years, journalists and news organizations often have been among the loudest, most strident voices warning of the growth of a dangerous echo chamber that would undermine society and democracy. Much of this is no doubt motivated by genuine concern—but at least part of this is also certainly a backlash against their declining power as gatekeepers. People rarely surrender power without a fight or protest.

Pew’s research indicates that the internet and social media may actually be helping to achieve some of the core goals of journalism: strengthening society, communities, and democracy, in part through sharing information. These are among the goals outlined by the 2009 report from the Knight Commission on Information Needs in a Democracy, and echoed by the FCC in its recent landmark report on the Information Needs of Communities.

In other words: We’re really all on the same side. The internet and social media are not enemies of journalism and the news business.

This means that it’s probably more important than ever for journalists and news organizations to embrace engagement through social media. It’s not just about driving traffic to your site. It’s not just about finding story and source ideas, or getting feedback to stories. It’s about doing what journalists are meant to do—and what our communities and audiences often expect us to do.

This harkens back to “public” or “civic” journalism—a movement that Jay Rosen covered in his 2001 book What Journalists are For. The now-dormant Pew Center for Civic Journalism describes this as: “A belief that journalism has an obligation to public life—an obligation that goes beyond just telling the news or unloading lots of facts. The way we do our journalism affects the way public life goes. Journalism can help empower a community or it can help disable it.”

Public/civic journalism has been an ethically controversial practice in mainstream newsrooms, especially on the grounds of objectivity. But much of what people are doing with and on social networking services mirrors the kind of constructive civic engagement that public journalism practitioners sought.

Maybe it’s time to revisit public journalism, in light of what people are doing with social media, and especially in light of this Pew research. Maybe social media engagement might be a more constructive and viable venue to pursue those goals—and reduce the pressure to try to achieve them directly through news stories.

The News Leadership 3.0 blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

By Amy Gahran, 06/21/11 at 3:30 am


The connections between citizen and civic journalism are something scholars of the field have been exploring for the past few years. Not always social media specifically, but certainly user participation in the news sphere—of which social media is a subset, naturally. A subset that is growing in participation and influence. Some of the ideas have been explored in this book:
(Disclosure: I’m a co-editor of this work)

By Jack Rosenberry, 06/21/11 at 11:35 am

Amy Gahran

Amy Gahran is a journalist, editor, trainer, entrepreneur, strategist, and media consultant based in Boulder, Colorado. In addition to writing
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