The popular notion of a news agenda driven by social media is illustrated by these BuzzFeed headlines: “26 Weird Things We All Did As Kids” and “Is Beyoncé Pregnant Or Just Trolling Us All?” Why this view that a social media news agenda would serve up only squishy-soft news? Because counts of clicks, tweets and “likes” tell us that this content fuels conversations. It’s what people choose to read and — especially — to share. So smart news organizations like BuzzFeed keep score, and learn to serve us winners, paid for by eager advertisers in search of, well, buzz.

But if you haven’t noticed, BuzzFeed serves its dessert with a heap of meat and potatoes, breaking big stories such as “Government Set Up A Fake Facebook Page In This Woman’s Name” and “London’s Oxford Street Reached Its Annual Pollution Limit In Four Days.” The shareable tidbits earn revenues that fund real and original news that brings readers to the site every day. The fraction of serious content on a news page is not what matters, it is the level that counts. And the level is rising.

More to the point: Is dessert all social media can do for the news agenda? Hardly. Sensational content derives from looking back to see what we click and share. But the potential for social media to enrich the news agenda involves looking ahead, to look deep, and to look through social networks.

Here’s what I mean.

Looking ahead with social media means informing the newsroom of newsworthy events in real time: not the end of the story, but the beginning. Twitter, especially, offers news tips on steroids. Even better — these tips come not from the untraceable pay phone, but with geo-location and time stamps, often source corroboration as well. The tools that transform social media chatter into news tips rely on machine-learning algorithms that flag keywords (“shooting”, “explosion,” “death”) in combination with geographic flashpoints (“Iraq,” “Harlem”) and context (“mall,” “airport”). Algorithms can measure the credibility of sources (proximity, network size, affiliation) and corroborate similar stories. The algorithms are spam filters with finesse, pulling kernels of meaning from a fire hose of chatter. The result is more, faster and better facts about world events, democratized and accessible to all. Private firms such as Dataminr and Storyful are leading efforts to look forward into social media, but new tools will soon make agenda-setting from social media a mainstay of news reporting.

Maybe this list of daily shootings, fires and llamas sounds more like a slow night on local television news than the editorial agenda of a world-class news organization. Well, let’s think not just about looking ahead but looking deep.

But if you haven’t noticed, BuzzFeed serves its dessert with a heap of meat and potatoes, breaking big stories such as “Government Set Up A Fake Facebook Page In This Woman’s Name” and “London’s Oxford Street Reached Its Annual Pollution Limit In Four Days.”

Social media offers the possibility to look past the top clicks and shares to identify the interests of niche audiences — minorities, ethnic groups, demographic clusters, religious adherents and others. News reporting has long tried to report diverse perspectives, but social media offer the promise of systematically uncovering topics that differentially interest or impact a unique audience. My research into how social networks affect the demand for news indicates that minorities on Twitter share different stories and topics than the majority audience. For example, tweets about the Trayvon Martin shooting in 2012 were three times more frequent among African Americans than among whites, and the discussion remained relevant longer. Tweets about the David Petraeus affair, conversely, were only a third as popular in the minority audience and interest faded more quickly. The upshot: When preferences across groups differ, there is always potential for coverage to favor the interests of larger groups. Using social media to reveal who cares about what is an important step in addressing disparity. And when the preferences of niche groups run the same way as the majority? Good to know that too. Algorithmic tools aimed at breaking down interests by group are in the works. I am working on this myself.

Is there a role for social media to shape the agenda in the heart of the newsroom — investigative reporting? Crowdsourced research led the first wave of social media in investigative journalism at major national outlets. Today, ProPublica, the nonprofit journalism outlet, has let the crowd drive the stories with reporting on restraints in schools, American Red Cross finances and debt collection sourced through its “Help Us Investigate” feature. Even closer to setting the agenda, the BBC Pop Up road trip let individuals across America pick the topics for its global audience.

The next wave of social media in investigative journalism might link crowdsourcing and machine learning to help journalists see through individual tweets and topics to the network itself, uncovering links between individuals and the information that travels between them. The same tools under development for understanding topics that matter to different demographic groups can identify the voices of teachers, doctors and other experts. These tools can help lift the views of informed opinion from the rest (wouldn’t that be nice?), but also help connect the dots between firms, experts, politics and more, opening new avenues and producing more leads in the investigative toolbox.

I am an optimist that social media and its best friend big data are shaping a better news agenda. But I do see some downsides, and it’s not the proliferation of puppies. It’s the Asking of Questions. Ultimately, stories are made using the tools we have, and some stories are better suited to the tools than others. As it becomes easier to crowdsource, to spot newsworthy events, and to investigate using social media, there will be a tendency to choose questions suited to the tools rather than tools suited to the questions. Question-asking is the hard part, the domain of skilled journalists, social scientists and experts. Successful media organizations in the future will depend no less on that.

Lisa George  
Guest blogger


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