Quantifying the Media’s Influence

Harvard researchers use social media analytics to measure press influence

Since the dawn of the printing press, it’s been common knowledge that the media influences the public. But despite many attempts from researchers over the years, measuring the press’ influence has never been able to reveal much. That changed last week when Harvard’s Dr. Gary King (co-founder of Crimson Hexagon) released a study that was able to measure the impact of news stories in a with the help of the press and social media analytics.

The full study,  published in Science, found that the publication of news stories on particular topics increased Twitter discussion of the topics by about 60%. The news stories also had an impact on the views expressed in those tweets, which shifted towards the views expressed in the articles.

A modern take on an old study

While many have tried to measure the influence of the media in the past, these studies often ran into issues. The competing challenges of the business interests of media outlets, the logististics of experimentation, and the complexity of accurate measurement always skewed results of any such study.

Dr. King’s study was able to avoid these pitfalls thanks to cooperation from from a wide variety of media outlets, the ease of digital publishing, and the measurement capabilities of social media analysis via Crimson Hexagon.

The preparation for the study began with Gary King and his colleagues getting media outlets to agree to take part. The thirty-three publications that ended up being part of the study were mostly small, but ranged from large online news sites like the Huffington Post to much smaller local sources like The Austin Chronicle. These publications agreed to work with King on coordinating on the dates certain news stories on certain topics got published.

How the study worked

The study consisted of 35 coordinated publication weeks in which multiple news outlets, in different combinations each time, volunteered to publish stories on the same topic. These topics ranged from race to immigration or jobs, but were never about breaking news.

Each set of stories ran at the start of one of two consecutive weeks, which were determined by the toss of a coin. The week the stories were published served to measure their impact while the other week served as the control.

Each time they carried out this procedure the researchers analyzed the entire two weeks of Twitter conversation using Crimson Hexagon to measure the influence of the news stories.

Gary King and his team were able to quantify the influence of the media in a tangible way. The study shows the value of social media analytics and how it can be applied to better understand influence, the media, and ultimately human behavior.

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