The audiences’ influence on the mainstream news agenda is significant. By providing content such as video from protests (user-generated content – UGC) and data about what types of news are getting our attention the digital audience is exerting substantial influence on what we see in the mainstream media.
Traditional sources of news, such as agencies like AP and Reuters, political communications and PR material, are a mainstream mainstay. Research has found that these established sources tend to dominate the news menus, particularly for foreign news. Substantial portions of the news agenda is sourced from the daily barrage of press releases and political communications.
Adding to these long-standing sources is the ocean of social media stories, from cat videos to police brutality in the US and elsewhere. UGC has become an integral part of the mainstream news agenda too.
But in this system, there are new gatekeepers between consumers and the newsroom– algorithms and agencies.
Newsrooms have clear insights into citizen engagement with news across social media. With tools like Crowdtangle and Newswhip, it is possible to see and sometimes predict what stories will go viral. The likes, shares are an important measure for a story’s newsworthiness. Where a story is gaining traction, the newsrooms can respond, dig deeper and deliver it to their readers. And these metrics also help signify what political and social issues matter to Irish audiences.
Water, housing, homelessness, direct provision, environment – the more engagement on social, the more the audiences collectively highlight that these are they care about. However, soft news tends to gain a larger reach across social media than grim realities. Cat videos often trump Trump.
But the algorithm that measures trends and at times predicts viral content is often private. There is little transparency in this part of the process. And it is not clear what critical user-generated stories might be overlooked. In this respect the audience engages only via an algorithm.
But social media metrics are only one part of the equation. Citizens also shape the news by reporting from on the ground at news events.
Social Media Wire services
Social media content has reshaped foreign news coverage. When newspapers were closing foreign desks to cut costs, social media content from people on the ground was providing new perspectives. Now networks of citizen-journalists and mainstream media bring stories from across the globe to the front page. But not so long ago many newsrooms took what users posted on social media at face value. They published without verifying, and sometimes without permission.
The past few years misinformation and disinformation has changed how newsrooms treat UGC. It must be investigated, verified, and permission for republication given by the owner. Providing this service for many top newsrooms are new social media wire agencies like Storyful.
Storyful was launched in 2010 by Irish journalists and bought over by News Corp in 2013. It now has several international offices and a significant newsroom in Dublin where teams of journalists trawl through the ocean of social media stories to collect the pearls and licence them to news titles.
Speed- Breaking news and verification
This type of centralised expertise is particularly useful in breaking news situations.
During some breaking news stories, a mountain of misinformation is dumped online; from fake videos and photos to false witnesses. Agencies like Storyful verify social content quickly and get it to newsrooms who can confidently publish the facts. It can connect the people with first-hand experience of an event to the biggest news titles in the world.
But they also filter out the noise. Teams of journalists monitor a range of alternative platforms like 4Chan, 8Chan, and Discord for disinformation campaigns. They kept a close eye on during the 8th Referendum. In this respect, they help maintain a healthy relationship between the audience and newsroom so that it works for both.
However, it is another news agency – and this introduces another range of concerns regarding gatekeeping, filtering and the who controls how the audience gets a platform in journalism via social media.
How much does the audience shape the news agenda?
The audience is only one part of the hybrid news media system. Regardless of what happens on social media, it is always up to an editor in a newsroom what to publish and what to spike. But the enhanced incorporation of the audience into the newsroom has given people a powerful role. The goal of most newsrooms is not to churn out what everyone else is doing; it is usually groundbreaking exclusives, investigations or new perspectives. Some of the biggest national news stories tend to original work of people digging deep. Savita on the front page, Tuam babies in mass graves, whistleblowers exposing malpractices and deep dive investigations like Prime Time are often the issues that force policy changes in business and government.
The audience has a role but so do the journalists, editors, the algorithm, the wire services, political and PR.