Breaking the news

By shimon speigel 13 / 10 / 2017

Social media is changing the way news is broken, consumed, and understood. Online and social media now acts as the main source of news for large swathes of the population. As such, an understanding of the popularity of social media for news is important, and useful for strategizing accessibility and engagement for business.

The rise in popularity of social media as a news source may be explained by certain attributes it possesses that traditional and online media do not, such as the ability to immediately report, the potential for personalised news, and the fact it is generally free.


It is no longer unusual for social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter to be the first to break news. The 2008 China earthquake, Boston marathon bombing, death of Margaret Thatcher, and the Hudson River plane crash are just a few examples of news first being reported via social media. Immediacy arguably plays a large part in why so many turn to these sites as a news source.

In some ways, it could be argued that traditional media is only ever reporting old news; reliance on printing and publishing is subject to various time and space constraints, which do not affect social media, and in some cases may mean news is not reported until the following day, or must adhere to a specific word count. Certainly, Twitter may require statements of 140-characters or less, but there is no limit to the amount of times one can tweet, or the time at which a tweet can be sent.


The personalisation aspect of social media is also appealing to some. Algorithms help social media to precisely tailor what an audience is exposed to, resulting in what Eli Pariser, CEO of Upworthy, describes as a ‘filter bubble’ in his 2011 TED talk. This phenomenon, he explains, leads to ‘your own personal unique universe of information that you live in online’. News that fits with personal attitudes or points of view appear on a newsfeed more often, based off of the clicking and engagement histories of a user on a particular social media platform, and the histories of those they connect with; it is reported that more people now discover news through algorithms than editors.

Personalizing news on social media may make it easier for organizations to engage an audience with their content, but there are downsides too. Consuming news determined by algorithms on social media does suggest there is no user-led option as to what news appears on a feed, and that which does appear is likely to be one-sided. Constantly reading news that validates an opinion is likely to only reinforce that view. As one of the fundamental principles of news journalism is to provide unbiased information, the algorithmic tailoring of news to specific users on social media is certainly an issue for further consideration.

There are alternate benefits to social media as a source of news. For one, it is generally free for the user; less than 10% of users in English-speaking countries have paid any money for online news in the previous year. For the information distributer, messages can also be dispersed globally with relatively little cost.

Traditional news media that have branched into online services do sometimes request site visitors to pay for news or subscriptions. However, the fact traditional news media have an app or online service demonstrates an understanding of the direction that news dissemination may head.

The future of media and news reporting is relatively uncertain, as there are obvious benefits to both traditional and newer forms. The disadvantages one type of media faces can be balanced out by the other format; each type provides certain aspects that the other cannot. The immediacy that traditional media lacks is found in social media, whilst quality, verified reporting in traditional media is less easily found across social media. As well as this, the opposing qualities of each represent an opportunity. Awareness of their own deficits should encourage each type of media to improve on areas it is lacking; journalists for traditional news media are looking to publish in more real time, to combat immediacy competition from social media, for example, and the quality journalism of traditional media can be adapted and distributed across social media for younger and wider audiences.