Next, the researchers identified a pair of consecutive weeks during which they expected the news to be generally slow. One week was randomly selected to serve as the "treated week," when the stories would be published, and the other week would serve as a control.
That allowed the authors to measure the effect that a cluster of stories had on the Twitter conversation. All they had to do was compare the number of times the agreed-upon topic was mentioned in the week after the stories were published to the number of mentions during the control week. (For the record, that was a lot harder than it sounds).
The investigators ran the experiment 35 times between October 2013 and March 2016.
The effect was significant: social media posts about a given topic jumped 19.4 percent, on average, the day after stories on that topic were published. That translated into an average of 13,166 additional posts about a topic after it was covered in the press.
The size of the effect varied widely, and the authors said it would likely scale up with the size of the news outlets that published a story.
To see if this was true, they measured the effect on the Twitter conversation of a New York Times story about fracking and water quality that few other outlets covered. The day the story ran, there was a one-day spike of more than 300 percent in tweets about water quality and related topics.
The effect that news stories had on the social media conversation was equal regardless of tweeters' gender, political party, place of residence or the number of Twitter followers an individual has.
While the average effect of a news "intervention" was larger than the researchers had expected, it was still quite small compared to the influence of "huge entertainment events," such as the airing of a new episode of the TV show "Scandal," the study authors wrote.
Still, King, Green Kaiser and their co-author Benjamin Schneer conclude that journalists do indeed influence what the country talks about.
"The decisions made in the nation's editorial boardrooms have remarkably large effects on the character and composition for the national conversation," they wrote.
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