Every day at the University of Michigan and other research institutions, researchers are examining the ways that technology has changed our interpersonal relationships. The research can have major implications for the way journalists interact with readers, interact with each other, and provide insight into sourcing their stories.
A major field of research in the last several decades is social capital. The ways that people interact with each other have drastically changed since the mid-20th century. Suburbs, changing social structures, and individualized leisure time brought people away from the neighborhood and leisure based socializing that was formerly common.
Social media and other forms of online communication, however, have brought people together in ways similar to “the good old days.” There are Facebook groups for CrossFitters, Yoga practitioners, dog-walkers, and any other interest group imaginable. Social media has allowed people to reconnect after long periods of absence and across geographic boundaries in ways that were not feasible with letters and long-distance phone calls.
The new social landscape does not look identical to the old, but both allow people to be socially connected.
Professor Nicole Ellison teaches and researches at the University of Michigan School of Information. Her main focus is the social impact of information and information technologies. I got to sit down with Professor Ellison to talk about her research on social capital and Facebook, and potential implications for journalists.
After interviewing Professor Ellison, I was interested in looking at the social networks of reporters on Twitter. Specifically, I was interested in seeing how (or if) the number of Tweet a reporter sends in a week is related to how many followers they have and therefore access to social capital. What I found was pretty surprising. Based on an (admittedly small) sample of forty-five New York Times national reporters, there is very little correlation. Though the number of followers ranged from 1,075 to 75,000, the vast majority of the reporters tweeted 100 times or fewer per week with most clustered under ten. I only looked at reporters, not editors or photographers.
I first compared the raw data, then compared everyone who had fewer than 10,000 followers since they were the majority. I thought since the people who had 30,000 or 75,000 followers were pushing the data into a large chunk, deleting them may give a clearer picture.
In fact, the scatter plot looks quite similar. There seems to be very little correlation between number of followers and frequency of Tweets. This then begs the question, what is the purpose of reporters Tweeting? In other words, if frequency of Tweets doesn’t garner additional social capital to be converted into resources for reporting, what is the purpose of tweeting?
This question of utilizing social media and the social capital that comes with it, is an important question for journalists looking toward the future. Twitter can be simply a marketing tool, as many have chosen to use it, or it can be a way for journalists to utilize the social capital available to them.
There are some journalists who are testing the waters of utilizing their social network for reporting. Jason DeRusha, a news anchor and food critic, can often be seen using his Twitter to crowdsource recommendations. His 32,000 followers engage with him frequently, answering his questions and conversing on Twitter. His Twitter feed displays some of the concepts that Professor Ellison discussed: he utilizes his large social network in a way that is reciprocal. Followers reply and he converses with them. He also utilizes them as sources.
There are also examples of reporters utilizing sources or citizen journalists inside conflict areas. This was evident during the Arab Spring, in 2011. Journalists were able to connect with citizens on the ground and share the content they produced. [Caution, video contains violence and may be too graphic for some viewers]
Since social media permeates throughout life, it is sometimes hard to remember that the medium is still in its early days. The ways that reporters choose to use social media, as marketing or as collecting social capital, are setting the course for the future. Research like Professor Ellison and her colleagues can help gain insight into ways that reporters are already using social media, but also ways that social media can help to improve reporting in the future. Whether reporters can harness the social capital they have access to may play a role in determining how social media is used by reporters in the future.