What Facebook and Twitter Mean for News

Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism The State of the News Media 2012 - An Annual Report on American Journalism

By Amy Mitchell & Tom Rosenstiel of PEJ, and Leah Christian of the Pew Research Center

Perhaps no topic in technology attracted more attention in 2011 than the rise of social media and its potential impact on news. “If searching for news was the most important development of the last decade, sharing news may be among the most important of the next,” we wrote in a May 2011 report analyzing online news behavior called Navigating News Online.

At the moment, Facebook and, to a lesser extent, Twitter, dominate this intersection of social media and news. As written about in detail in the Digital chapter of this report, eMarketer reports that Facebook had 133 million active users in the U.S. at the end of 2011. Facebook defines “active users” as those who interact with Facebook content at least once a month. Despite debates about defining “active users,” there is little question about the site’s popularity or its “stickiness,” the degree to which some users are there a lot: Facebook users spent an average of 423 minutes each on the site in December. By contrast, a PEJ analysis of Nielsen Net View data puts the average time on a top 25 news site at just under 12 minutes per month.  Even in 2010, all but one of those top news sites, with the exception being Google News, obtained a portion of their traffic from Facebook. And in 2011, Facebook furthered the news element of its platform with developments like the Social Reader, which allows users to follow, read and share news without ever leaving the network.

How much are consumers relying on Facebook for their daily news information, especially in comparison with using search or going directly to news websites or apps? And when they do get news on these networks, does it come from friends and family or from news organizations they follow? And finally, how is this news viewed?

A new survey released as part of this year’s annual State of the News Media Report probes news consumption and habits on different digital devices, including how news consumers use social media. The broader findings are covered in a companion special report on mobile devices. This report explores in more detail the findings as they relate to social media and news. It explores not only the extent to which social media are used to access news, but also how news behavior on Facebook compares with that on Twitter, and who these social media news consumers are.

Overall, as noted in the companion report, the survey confirms that Facebook and Twitter are now pathways to news, but their role may not be as large as some have suggested. The population that uses these networks for news at all is still relatively small, especially the part that does so very often. Moreover, these social media news consumers have not given up other methods of getting news, such going directly to websites, using apps or through search. In other words, social media are additional paths to news, not replacements for more traditional ones.

The survey also finds that Twitter and Facebook function differently from each other, both in terms of where the news links come from and the degree to which people believe they are encountering different news than they would have encountered elsewhere.  Each also draws a different population of users, with Twitter users standing out most. Facebook news users get more news from friends and family and see it as news they might well have gotten someplace else if Facebook did not exist. For Twitter users, though, the news links come from a more even mix of family and friends and news organizations. Most of these users also feel that without Twitter, they would have missed this kind of news.