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Has Social Media Ruined Our Perception of Newsworthy Stories?

It wasn’t that long ago that I took my first journalism course. I remember that, above all else, my professor drilling into our heads the characteristics that make a story “news.” If you’ve ever taken an entry-level reporting class, you probably learned those same seven aspects that journalists swear by:

  1. Timeliness
  2. Proximity
  3. Impact
  4. Novelty
  5. Conflict
  6. Human interest
  7. Prominence

Newsworthy stories, my professor explained, had at least two or three of these characteristics. For instance, the recent terrorist attacks in Paris fell into at least five or six of the seven categories, making the event a given front-page headline for media outlets around the world.

But my Journalism 101 course and all its materials were created before social media took over. Now that Facebook and Twitter are go-to sources for news content, have these age-old journalistic principles become irrelevant? And if they have, what does that mean for society?

Facebook Trending News Screen ShotIs “Trending News” Really News?

According to a study by Pew Research, the number of people who get their news from Facebook and Twitter has increased significantly over the past few years. As of 2015, 63 percent of Facebook users turn to the social platform for their daily news, and the same percent of Twitter users browse news stories via the site.

It’s an understandable trend—after all, you’re probably logging in to social media anyway, so why not kill two birds with one stone? You can catch up with your friends while figuring out what’s going on in the world. Sounds like a win-win, right?

It seems pretty logical, until you browse the “trending news” sidebar on Facebook or the “Moments” tab on Twitter. Frankly, a lot of the so-called news that appears on social media is pretty irrelevant. For example, from the Facebook screenshot to the right, I’d be willing to bet that only two or three of these “top stories” would actually make it into a newspaper. Is the release of a new American Girl doll relevant to society? Does it have an impact on the world? Is it a novel event? I’m sure it’s interesting to some, but I’m not convinced that it’s worthy of a top news spot, whether on Facebook or anywhere else. After all, if it only meets one of the newsworthiness characteristics, can it really be considered news?

On Facebook and Twitter, More Users Are Getting News - Pew ResearchPutting the People in Control

In the era of social media, newsworthiness is no longer a matter of timeliness, proximity, impact, and the like. Instead, it’s a matter of shareability. When it comes to social media, the masses are in charge of what makes the top news, and often, less-than-newsworthy stories make headlines simply because they’re shareable.

For example, I can almost guarantee that you have an opinion on “The Dress”—for the record, I’m on team blue and black—but did you know that in early November, a plastic bag factory collapsed in Pakistan, killing 20 people? The New York Times covered the story, but it never made it into the ranks of Facebook’s trending news.

If you break it down, trending news on social media is generally composed of two types of stories:

  • Big News: Important, highly relevant stories that affect a majority of social media users, such as the Paris attacks.
  • Fluff Stories: Articles that either have entertainment value, such as a story about a popular celebrity, or shock value, like most of the headlines starring Donald Trump.

Based on this theory, it’s safe to assume there’s a lot of important-but-not-huge news that flies under most people’s radar. Is this a good thing? In a way, it allows people to read only the stories they care about. But there’s something to be said for putting traditionally newsworthy stories in front of audiences—even if they don’t necessarily want to read the article, people benefit more from knowing there are pressing safety issues in overseas manufacturing facilities than knowing the Kardashians are on vacation in the Caribbean, right?

HONY Syrian refugee post seriesWhat Trending Content Means for Media Companies and Brands

The shift in the way people consume news and, subsequently, the topics they consider to be newsworthy has big implications for brands and media companies alike. All of a sudden, reporting on international relations and local legislation isn’t as rewarding—in terms of traffic, anyway—as posting the latest updates in the Taylor Swift/Nicki Minaj feud. So what’s the next step for content producers?

Initially, it’s probably a good idea to revisit your news content goals. Are you trying to provide value to your readers and build strong, trusting relationships? In this case, you may want to stick with more serious, traditional news stories. This type of content will attract a more intellectual, socially conscious audience, but your article probably won’t go viral. Alternatively, you might want to get your brand name in front of as many people as possible, and to that end, shareable topics that entertain or shock audiences may be the way to go.

Of course, there are some content creators that manage to have their cake and eat it, too. One noteworthy example is “Humans of New York,” which often uses human interest stories to raise awareness about serious world events. For instance, the blog recently wrapped up a series on Syrian refugees who are fleeing the country because of the civil war, and several of its posts made it to Facebook’s top trending news spot after racking up hundreds of thousands of likes and tens of thousands of shares.

This approach—using touching, shareable stories that are directly connected to a newsworthy event—is one way that brands can make the most out of the strange situation that social media news has created. Another option is to put a fresh spin on traditional reporting to make important news more shareable. Instead of producing cut-and-dry articles in true journalistic style, theSkimm puts a punny, quirky spin on the news each day. The goal of the newsletter is to make you chuckle while you read about Korea’s supposed H-bomb test and other traditionally newsworthy stories, and if its 1.5 million subscribers are any indication, the modern media company is hitting its mark.

In the modern age of social media, brands are often intently focused on giving readers what they want in hopes of creating the next viral news story. However, there’s something to be said for swimming against the current and maintaining more traditional journalistic principles—who knows, it could be exactly what your audience is looking for in a world of trending news.

For more tips on how to weather the changing world of news content, subscribe to the Content Standard Newsletter.

  • Fantastic. I was an editor in an upstart newsroom for many years in Vancouver and witnessed its development from standard print news in a commuter daily to its online-first platform. You bet the news changed along with it – more Katy Perry and TomKat, less hard news, and that meant better exposure and higher traffic volume. The Internet also made for more opportunities to be visual with our news, so I built photo galleries every day to go with some of the bigger stories and those, of course, were some of the biggest traffic drivers in our site.

    It also meant the downturn of good, old, roll-up-your-sleeves journalism in our pages, but that doesn’t mean the outright demise of such. As you suggested, those who look for those will find it in the more “specialized” sites. While they don’t get the million-plus traffic numbers that gossip-hungry rags receive on a regular basis, those sites command greater respect and have lasting power.

    It’s really a diversification of news. The news *is* out there – we just have to look a little harder for it.

    • Camryn Rabideau

      It seems as though you really got to experience this shift firsthand, Keith. I’m glad you agree that “real” news still exists — I think society would be much worse off if it didn’t! Now if only we could make it the rule, instead of the exception :) Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts!

  • Lesley McLaughlin

    Thank you Camryn. I’m glad someone shared this on Facebook! ;)

    • Camryn Rabideau

      Thanks for reading, Lesley! I’m so glad you liked it!

  • Jacqueline Frasca

    I think this progression of fluff “news” on Facebook, Twitter, and beyond is due largely to the appeal of escapism. I read last week a story on Fast Company about how multitasking actually damages our brains, and I think Facebook and Twitter are classic examples of where people turn to distract themselves from the task at hand. These fluff stories trend because they’re part of the escape—and while hard news (often depressing) can provide its own kind of escape, it’s an emotional investment I don’t think are many are eager to commit to while “multitasking” (see: procrastinating in small ways throughout the day).

    • I definitely agree with you. I often pop onto social media during the day to see what’s going on in the world, and I’m more apt to click on headlines that I know will be quick, noncommittal reads. I try to come back to the hard news stories when I get a chance, but sometimes that doesn’t happen—your logic makes a lot of sense!

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts!