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