People using social media as a news source can design their own news agenda — identifying the sources and topics they want to follow. This has led to speculation that people will become narrow in their interests without the agenda-setting influence of news organizations.
The survey probed this notion in various ways, including by asking people what sources they followed and whether it was more likely a news organization, a friend, an individual journalist or a sub-section of a news organization. (On Twitter, people are more likely to follow individual journalists than the main account of a whole news organization, which will be detailed later).
But the survey probed this most directly by asking people what topics they recalled following in the news in the past week. They were given a list of some two-dozen possible topics.
The findings, which reinforce earlier research conducted by the American Press Institute, suggest that American social media users have a fairly wide curiosity about news. When given a list of some 28 possible news topics, a majority of respondents in the nationally representative sample of social media users named seven that they recalled following in the news in the last week. Non-Twitter users also cited seven. And Twitter users, as we saw in several other questions, seem even more news-oriented. On average, Twitter users followed 14 different topics last week.
Nor is social media the only way that Twitter users and non-Twitter social media users get news. The survey found that most of the three different social media user groups get news from many different news sources or pathways several times a week at least. Indeed, majorities across all groups cite five different pathways they use to get news — from television news, search engines, newspapers, radio and word of mouth.
Social networks, in other words, appear to be adding to the ways that Americans are informed, not eliminating more traditional pathways entirely.
There were some notable differences in the news sources and discovery methods cited among the three core samples of social media users, the nationally representative sample, Twitter users and non-Twitter social media users.
Twitter users are less likely to be TV news viewers, more likely to use search, mobile apps and websites and social networks. There were not substantial differences in use of newspapers or radio.
Non-Twitter users, by contrast, are less likely than social media users in general to use various online tools, including search and mobile apps.
Why Twitter and non-Twitter social media users get news
People can use news in different ways — to talk about it, for civic action, to save money. The survey asked people the reasons they keep up with the news, and compared the answers of Twitter users and non-Twitter users. There were some differences.
Most people across both groups said it helped them function as a citizen (more than 8 in 10). Twitter users were somewhat more inclined to say they liked to talk about news with friends (66% vs. 59%) and find it relaxing and entertaining (36% vs. 29%). People who use social media but are not on Twitter were more likely to say the news helps them save money when they shop (11% for Twitter users, 21% for non-users). Twitter users were significantly more likely to say the news helps them with their job (30% vs. 6% for non-Twitter users).
Twitter and the news
By various measures, the study found that news and Twitter are intimately linked. Fully 86% of Twitter users say they use the social network for news, and the vast majority of those, 74%, do so daily.
The majority of Twitter users in the study also believe that they now get more news than they did before they joined the social network. Fully 6 out of 10 Twitter users (61%) say they get more news since joining. Just over a quarter (24%) say their news consumption has stayed about the same. Only 2% estimate they consume less news since they joined Twitter.
News on Twitter is also highly participatory, meaning it is more than just consuming news. Fully 64% of Twitter users say they both get and share news on the service. Just 21% say they just consume; only 2% say they get their news elsewhere and just use Twitter to share it.
One interesting finding of the study is that the vast majority of Twitter users rely mostly on two paths for discovering or finding news on Twitter, though there are potentially many more. Fully 80% of Twitter news users said they get news by “scrolling through my timeline” and 67% by “browsing tweets from people I know.” In all, 94% of Twitter news users get their news either through scrolling or browsing.
Beyond that, the other ways that users could follow news are far less frequent. Just 34% of Twitter news users, for instance, said they check trending topics, the same number that said they see tweets as part of articles on other websites. About half as many (15%) said they checked Twitter’s “discover” section, a feature more recently replaced with “while you were away.” And 11% said they employed Twitter push notifications to tablets or phones.
In other words, there are more ways to customize Twitter than the majority of its users are employing most of the time.
When they do find news on Twitter, how often do people click on stories? Virtually everyone who uses Twitter for news (92%) clicks through to read stories at least sometimes. Thirty-nine percent said they usually or always do so, another 53% said sometimes. Just 8% said rarely or never.