Twitter analysis findings to be shared at Washington D.C. symposium

A record-breaking number of tweets came out of the 2012 presidential election season with many calling it the “Twitter Election.” As newsroom leaders experiment with social media, how can they make sense of big data? How can social media be used in reporting as a source of information, as a way to engage readers and as a way to gauge public sentiment? Two University of Missouri professors, who are pursuing a fellowship at the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute, are helping news organizations answer some of those questions.

MU Professors Brian Houston and Mitchell McKinney have been leading a research team examining the impact of social media on citizens’ political engagement, and how citizens’ voices become part of dialogue and news coverage of political events.

The team analyzed tweets from the 2012 presidential debates and plans to develop tools and best practices to help news organizations take advantage of this technology.

However, analyzing large amount of data from the debates has been challenging. The team hopes to find some level of conversation and deliberation among all the snide remarks, jokes and profanity in the tweets.

“We’d like to think of Twitter as sort of the electronic town hall on this conversation or discussion, but that may not be the reality of it,” Houston said.

Newspaper partnerships

As part of their project, they partnered with two U.S. daily newspapers (Florida Times Union and Dallas Morning News) to analyze tweets in various regions, and then compare tweets from across the nation. Here is some of what they learned:

A look back at some of the comments that received the most tweets:

  1. Big Bird
  2. Binders full of women
  3. Horses and bayonets

Issues that resonated with readers during the second debate:

  • Dallas Morning News — jobs, taxes, guns and binders full of women
  • Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville) — binders full of women, taxes, size/role of government and Sheldon Adelson.

Through this project, the researchers learned about how these two news organizations currently use Twitter in their day-to-day operations.

Read more about the team’s project here.

After the debates were over, the team surveyed the newspaper readers to gain insight into their tweeting experience. (See sidebar with findings).

Hurley Symposium

Mitchell McKinneyBrian HoustonThe team’s next step will be taking their findings and analyses to the 2013 Curtis B. Hurley Symposium on Public Affairs Journalism event in Washington D.C. on April 9. The Hurley Symposium is an annual event that brings together scholars and professional journalists to discuss issues affecting journalism and public policy. This year’s symposium will focus on social media, journalism and democracy. The event will be sponsored by RJI, the Missouri School of Journalism and the National Press Club.

The research team plans to share what they’ve learned with politicians, top media executives, journalists and social media industry representatives. They also hope to continue to learn from others about how social media is influencing journalism and politics.

“There are some things we want to say and tell them about what we’re finding,” said Houston. “But we also really want to hear from them about what they are encountering and what their processes are so we can be part of this national conversation about this emergent technology and this newer area of journalism and research.”

Panel Survey

The researchers will also be launching a national panel survey later this spring to test some of their Twitter analysis hypotheses.

For example, how do characteristics of tweets (news organization versus journalist, objective versus opinion) influence individuals?

In regard to:

  1. Perception of source (trustworthiness, credibility)
  2. Likelihood to engage with source (click on the link, follow source, pass along link to a friend)

One final goal…

As the researchers prepare to wrap up their fellowship this spring and look to the future, one of their goals is to continue to establish a national presence for their research team and their findings.

“We hit this topic at a good time as it was emerging,” said Houston. “We’ve been able to be part of a national and even an international conversation. We want to continue getting this (information) out, connecting with other opportunities and further establishing presence and leadership in this area.”

Newspaper survey findings

  • The team studied a trend that they are terming “social watching,” which means people often watch debates with friends or family, instead of alone. The team found this to be true in their survey. If a reader watched the debate with another person, they tended to enjoy the debate more.
  • As people engaged in more campaign talk in their everyday lives, they tended to enjoyed the debates more.
  • Generally, reading more political media made readers more likely to enjoy the debates.
  • Communicating on Twitter or Facebook was not a significant predictor of readers enjoying the debate more. However, they tended to watch more debates if they engaged in tweeting.
  • Campaign talk and campaign interest were positively related to the amount of debates watched.

Jennifer Nelson  
Senior Information Specialist


Related Stories

comments powered by Disqus
MU | Missouri School of Journalism | University of Missouri