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The Like Economy: How Social Media Reshapes News Priorities

In an era where more than half of American adults regularly get their news from social media sites, a recent study reveals fundamental changes in how news is consumed, shared and valued. The findings are particularly relevant to ongoing debates about the quality of news on web platforms and its impact on public discourse.

Researchers Jieun Shin, University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications Media Production, Management, and Technology assistant professor, Seth Lewis, Shirley Papé Chair in Emerging Media at the University of Oregon, Soojong Kim, UC Davis Department of Communication assistant professor, and Kjerstin Thorson, Michigan State University Brandt Endowed Professor of Political Communication, examined the extent to which traditional journalism values, such as factual reporting and public importance, compete with social media values like popularity in driving engagement.

The study’s participants included 5,816 consumers and 742 journalists. They reviewed news stories on Facebook that were stripped of brand and visual identifiers to focus purely on the content. The researchers discovered that mass appeal overwhelmingly dictates news engagement on platforms like Facebook. It represents a fundamental shift from news stories curated by professional editors to content curated by users.

On networking platforms, users’ attention is a coveted resource. The study shows that stories reflecting traditional journalistic principles lack renown in an environment that values metrics such as likes, shares, and comments. Consequently, content creators are incentivized to prioritize broad appeal over facts and impartiality. In fact, the study found that the more people shared news stories on Facebook, the less accurate those stories tended to be.

The study shows that the emergence of social sharing platforms as a key news distribution channel has introduced dynamics that complicate the balance between journalistic integrity and market forces. Understanding these mechanisms and their impact on public discourse is important for news media executives and academics. For example, the research reveals that while the news judgments of consumers align with those of journalists, story engagement on networking websites doesn’t reflect that alignment. Instead, engagement is overwhelmingly driven by mass appeal.

The study also references mediatization theory – the idea that media plays a significant role in shaping how individuals and organizations make sense of the world – to consider how society will adapt to digital networks that optimize engagement metrics. The findings suggest the democratic functions of journalism could be eroded by the popular appeal of news stories that are not necessarily accurate or important for civic dialogue. Also, if online sharing platforms increasingly influence the practices of news outlets, they may ultimately change societal norms, values, beliefs, and behaviors.

As organizations navigate this evolving landscape, understanding the dynamics of journalism principles and social media values is crucial for adapting to and thriving within this new paradigm.

The original article, “Does high-quality news attract engagement on social media? Mediatization, media logic, and the contrasting values that shape news sharing, liking, and commenting on Facebook,” was published online on Feb. 7, 2024, in the journal New Media & Society.

 Authors: Jieun Shin, Seth C. Lewis, Soojong Kim, and Kjerstin Thorson

 This summary was written by Gisele McAuliffe.

Posted: March 11, 2024
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