How Powerful Is the Press Today?

Maria Cristina Lalonde
Maria Cristina Lalonde
How Powerful Is the Press Today?

As Mark Twain once quipped, “There are only two forces that can carry light to all the corners of the globe:the sun in the heavens and the Associated Press down here.”

Over a century after Mark Twain made the observation, a study examining the relationship between the press and public engagement confirms media does indeed play a significant role in what we discuss and how we feel about it.

In order to test the “power” of the press, researchers recruited 48 media outlets—mostly small, non-national one—to publish articles on select topics. This allowed them to monitor how active the public discussion was and how closely the opinions expressed hewed to that of the article.

Following publication of an article, public discussion via social media posts increased by 20 percent. And in terms of broader policy discussions, the study found their select articles resulted in relative daily increase of 62.7 percent in the conversation.

Because randomizing a media-based study, as would occur in a medial trial, is impossible without their participation, the study provides unique insights previously unavailable to researchers. Randomization was achieved by flipping a coin to determine whether an article would be published on one of two consecutive weeks. Public discussion during the non-publication week acted as the “control” group to compare against the “treatment” week when an article was published.

While each article only produced a modest upswing in social media chatter in absolute terms, the effect was consistent throughout the study regardless of topic or publication. This increase in discussion also measured largely evenly regardless of political affiliations, gender and location, suggesting press’ influence remains steady across widely different demographics.

Most significantly, the study reported a two percent increase in social media posts corresponding to the opinion proffered in the published article. While a two percent increase on any given topic is a small change, considered in the aggregate of articles and opinions published on a daily basis it could prove sufficient to affect significant changes in public opinion, or perhaps swing an election.

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