Tag Archives: agenda setting

Is Twitter the new news?

Change is afoot in agenda-setting. It’s 40 years since McCombs and Shaw wrote their article, and media has moved on, particularly in the way stories are sourced. Social media covergence means that journalists are sometimes the last to know about breaking stories: “Facebook and Twitter are largely, in my view, a headline service where breaking stories, usually from traditional media, are spread on the social networks.” says Robert Beers, a journalism lecturer. “But sometimes the stories appear on there first.”

One only has to look at the recent Iranian election. Beers believes that the mainstream news outlets were playing catch up to what was trending on Twitter from bloggers and prostestors’ tweets in order to gauge the reacation.
Indeed, it is rare for a celebrity pregnancy, marriage or break-up (which, whatever its genuine news values, will be reported) to be annouced anywhere other than the social networks. The Independent has a page dedicated to the latest tweets, and even that’s a day old upon publication.

This kind of web 2.0 journalism allows grassroots journalists to set the agenda for the day. Once a tweet, or video, or status update goes viral, there’s no stopping the inexorable juggernaut of headline making it might cause. Take US Attorney General Mark Shurtleff’s annoucement on Twitter last June that convicted murderer Ronnie Lee Gardner was to be exectued. “I just gave the go ahead to the Corrections Director to proceed with Gardner’s execution. May God grant him the mercy he denied his victims.” Shurtleff tweeted. A callous, but current, way to annouce someone’s death by firing squad. Indeed, the first photo of the Hudson river plane landing was seen on Twitter.

Sky News announced in 2009 that Ruth Barnett was to become their full-time `Twitter Correspondent’. Jemima Kiss at The Guardian had her reservations: “The danger is that is this rush to fetishise Twitter, the media perpetuates the rather irritating habit of always looking for The Next Big Thing.”. The fact she tweeted a link to this story is not only ironic, but could not be more indicative of our changing media.

In his lecture, Jon Snow formed a beautiful allegory for this convergence. Traditional media is the left of the twin towers. The original, where the real leg work goes in – where the money is spent. The right tower is new media – the social networks. Yet one cannot work without the other. Twitter only allows 140 characters – “a headline service”, as Beers puts it. The burden is then placed on the mainstream outlets to build a story out of the headline.

The problem, as is so often the case, is one of money. A man sitting in his room can tweet something that might change the world at no cost. However, it costs news stations and papers to send people out to the scene to create a story out of it. Jon Snow bemoaned the fact that Channel Four can send an army of 20 cameras, complete with helicopters and reporters, to the scene of breaking news story, only for their footage to appear on YouTube hours later for millions to watch free of charge.

Given this change it is difficult to speculate on the direction of media agenda-setting. There can be no doubt that it exists, and always has – but now, of course, it doesn’t have to be in the paper in order to read about it. Would it be too much to say that social networks are creating an alternative reality? Probably, but it’s not far off.

You can follow Neal Wallace on Twitter @nealjwallace

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A changing agenda?

We all like to be in the know. But what does being in the know actually mean? The news is so heavily regulated, so massively controlled, that being in the know has become almost paradoxical. Here’s a looks at agenda-setting in the media, and what social media convergence means for the future of how we digest our news.

The comedian Stewart Lee, the most unapologetic and erudite of stand-ups, tells a joke about being in a Spanish bar in the immediate aftermath an attack on two buildings in America. “Where’s that?” – “¿Donde esta?”, in Spanish – he asks the barman, as the horror begins to unfold on screen. “Nueva York”, he replies. “Oh it’s probably just somewhere in Colombia, doesn’t really matter.” But then, of course, he realises the events on the television are happening in New York, where English-speaking people live and, thus, are a terrible newsworthy tragedy.

Despite the obvious facetiousness of the joke, Lee was making a valid point. A few weeks ago, when the New Zealand mine exploded and 29 people tragically lost their lives, the Scottish papers focused solely on the two Scots who were killed. “Pete Rodger, 40, from Perthshire, and Malcolm Campbell, 25, from St Andrews, Fife, were among the men missing following Friday’s initial blast at Pike River mine in Atarau on South Island.” wrote The Herald.

In a recent lecture I attended, Jon Snow talked about being in Haiti after the earthquake. “We were on a boat and people were shouting to us to come and help.” he said, “And then we found a UN translator who spoke English to us, and that’s when the awfulness of it all hit home.”

The point I make here is the news tells us what’s important to us. If it’s not in the news, you won’t hear about it. We, as the reader, can’t control what the newspapers print. Then, it seems, neither can they: “Press releases are issued to everyone at the same time, everyone is invited to the same photocall and contributors are briefed to say the same thing to every outlet. It becomes very difficult to put your own stamp on something like that, because you end up with identical pictures and sound to everyone else.”, says Keith Wallace, a journalist at the BBC.

When Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw introuced the world to agenda-setting theory in 1968, it caused something of a furore. The idea that the media, the reliable source of day-to-day world events, might have an agenda on top of their political affiliations finally provided an explanation as to why people prioritize the same issues as important. In the English-speaking world, it’s English-speaking events that carry the gravitas to make the front pages. The crux of agenda-setting is salience transfer – the ability of the news media to transfer the most important issues from news agendas to public agendas. Propaganda, in a sense. Beyond attitudes and opinions, the pictures of reality created by the mass media have implications for personal behaviors, ranging from university applications to voting on election day.

However, McCombs argues that there’s nothing malicious about agenda-setting: “It should be noted that the use of term “agenda” here is purely descriptive. There is no pejorative implication that a news organization “has an agenda” that it relentlessly pursues as a premeditated goal. The media agenda presented to the public results from countless day-to-day decisions by many different journalists and their supervisors about the news of the moment.” he writes.

Yet there is a reluctance amongst journalists to act like this: “After all, each journalist wants authorship of his own story, and not just to be churning out the same old copy being churned out in offices elsewhere. Nobody really just wants to flip newsburgers for a living.” Wallace tells me. “But the media does act as a pack.”

Nick Davies, one of the investigative journalists behind the Jonathan Aitken exposé, released a book last year, which broke perhaps the most important of unwritten Fleet Street rules – he investigated his own colleagues. Depite this, Flat Earth News was greeted with considerable praise from within the industry. The Observer called it “Powerful and timely”, lauding the meticulousness of his research. Yet it was The Observer at the centre of one of the most controversial examples of angeda setting.

In 2002, the paper’s US Correspondent, Ed Vulliamy filed a story not once, but seven times, which had a former CIA intelligence analyist, Mel Goodman, on record declaring that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction. In Goodman’s words, the Bush administration based “the case for war against Iraq on a shoot-the-messenger syndrome, ignoring the assessments by CIA analysts which did not support the case for war, and instead establishing intelligence cadres made up of political appointees who will tell the President what he wants to hear.”

So why, then, did The Observer not print this? This a paper that has traditionally placed it self left of centre and opposed previous invasions. They actually declared their support for the war. “They were seduced into accepting unproven and extravagent claims; this flagship of the left was towed along in the wake of a determindly right-wing American government; the essential role of journalism, to tell the truth, was compromised.” argues Davies.

Yet on more domestic issues, the papers are much quicker to editorialise. The Guardian recently ran a story on the fact that Murdoch’s visited to Number 10, just after Cameron had moved in, was not documented in either The Times or The Sun, both of which are owned by Murdoch’s Newscorp. So it’s less an argument about opinion, and more about what is news itself. “The front page headlines might be quite similar, but the leader columns are very different.” Wallace says.

A case in point has been the Wikileaks release of some 250,000 diplomatic cables. Whichever paper you read, the news has been simply unavoidable. For good reason, too. It is important, but it’s made more important by the extent to which it’s been reported. A friend told me he expects Julian Assange’s body to be found hanging in an underground bunker somewhere, or washed up on an uninhabited island. That he has been afforded so much coverage, despite the fact Wikileaks is run by many more people than Assange, has lead to him being arrested for a sex crime, supposedly commited over a year ago.

That’s not to say it has been reported in the same way everywhere, and one can speculate on the reason why. Robert Beers, a lecturer in jouranlism, media and communications at the University of Central Lancashire, said: “Wikileaks has been trounced by the more conservative papers but the Guardian and Independent have some writers who are quite pleased with the open distribution of the cables in question.” A Robert Fisk article in The Independent, entitled “Wikileaks and the shaming of America” very much confirms this view. Contrast this with The Telegraph’s Bennedict Brogan’s column “Wikileaks is embarassing – but not serious” and the split becommes even more apparent. The mere fact, however, that it has been so widely reported demonstrates McCombs idea that Wikileaks is the agenda of the moment.

Yet the papers have agendas within agendas – something that can be attributed to Noelle-Nueman’s `spiral of silence’. That is, the idea that voicing an opinon opposite to the popular one, within one’s social domain, can lead to isolation. That Wikileaks has received such condemnation from the right is hardly a surprise. The leftist papers’ apparent ambivalence will inevitably raise more eyebrows.

You can follow Neal Wallace on Twitter @nealjwallace