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Journalism matters, science concludes

Deborah Netburn, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Science & Technology News

The president may be fond of complaining about "fake" news, but the truth is that journalism drives the national conversation, and science has proven it.

A new study published Thursday in the journal Science demonstrates that even small news outlets can have a substantial impact on the issues Americans talk about and when they talk about them. That's especially true when these news outlets work together.

"Journalists have a job that affects American democracy," said study leader Gary King, director of Harvard University's Institute for Quantitative Social Science. "People talk about this a lot, but now we actually have evidence of it."

King and his co-authors found that if three small- to medium-sized news outlets publish stories on the same topic simultaneously, they can cause the volume of social media posts on that issue to increase by an average of nearly 20 percent in a single day.

"This is a big impact, especially given the size of the outlets we worked with," said Ariel White, a political scientist at MIT who worked on the study.

The news industry has lots of ways to monitor how many people are reading an individual article online, what devices they are reading it on, and how they came to find those stories in the first place.

What's traditionally been harder to measure is whether the articles inspire readers to talk about a topic with friends and family, or take a public stand on a particular issue.

Before the rise of social media, the only way to know if media coverage was moving the needle on national conversations was to eavesdrop on water cooler discussions, read letters to the editor, and in the deeper past, listen to soap box speeches in public squares and read leaflets, the authors said.

But times have changed.

"Today, we can take advantage of the fact that much of the conversation has moved to, and is recorded in, the 750 million social media posts that appear publicly on the web each day," they wrote.

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