A New Study Shows That Independent Media Has an Outsized Impact

In These Times and other progressive outlets participated in a five-year study on how news coverage affects the national conversation.

Jo Ellen Kaiser November 9, 2017

Google, Face­book and Twit­ter were hauled in front of Con­gress last week to explain how Russ­ian bots were able to spread fake news on their plat­forms. The con­cern — and a very real one — is that these bots and fake news sites had a sig­nif­i­cant impact on the 2016 election.

Independent media followers not only comment and repost on social media, they donate to these organizations and attend events in real life.

Fight­ing fake news, how­ev­er, is not the only or best way to ensure that our con­tent ecosys­tem pri­or­i­tizes real news. This week, a ground­break­ing arti­cle in Sci­ence proves that a bet­ter way to secure a media sys­tem that works for democ­ra­cy is to strength­en inde­pen­dent news outlets.

The five-year long study pub­lished this week in Sci­ence, direct­ed by Har­vard pro­fes­sor Gary King, shows that even small inde­pen­dent news out­lets can have a dra­mat­ic effect on the con­tent of nation­al con­ver­sa­tion. King, along with his now for­mer grad­u­ate stu­dents Ben Schneer and Ariel White, found that if just three out­lets write about a par­tic­u­lar major nation­al pol­i­cy top­ic — such as jobs, the envi­ron­ment or immi­gra­tion — dis­cus­sion of that top­ic across social media rose by as much as 62.7 per­cent of a day’s vol­ume, dis­trib­uted over the week.

Over 60 per­cent of the par­tic­i­pat­ing out­lets were mem­bers of The Media Con­sor­tium, the orga­ni­za­tion I direct. In These Times par­tic­i­pat­ed in this study, along with Truthout, Bitch Media, The Pro­gres­sive, Earth Island Jour­nal, Fem­i­nist­ing, Gen­er­a­tion Progress, Ms. Mag­a­zine, Yes! mag­a­zine and others.

Indi­vid­u­al­ly, none of them is a New York Times or CNN. In fact, too often, phil­an­thropic foun­da­tions refuse to sup­port these out­lets because they are too small” and don’t have enough impact.” What this Sci­ence study proves is that when inde­pen­dent news out­lets work togeth­er to co-pub­lish sto­ries on the same top­ic in the same week, they can have a mighty effect.

We expect­ed inde­pen­dents would have a big impact on nation­al con­ver­sa­tions, for sev­er­al rea­sons. First, inde­pen­dents have strong and loy­al fol­low­ers who are eager to talk about the con­tent they read and view at their favorite out­lets. When Bitch, Fem­i­nist­ing and Truthout togeth­er pub­lish sto­ries on repro­duc­tive health, they have a social reach of over a mil­lion followers.

But inde­pen­dent media fol­low­ers are not just thumbs-up peo­ple. They not only com­ment and repost on social media, they donate to these orga­ni­za­tions and attend events in real life. These are peo­ple who want to par­tic­i­pate in nation­al con­ver­sa­tions about top­ics they care about, from immi­gra­tion to glob­al warm­ing to school reform. So it makes sense that they would push those con­ver­sa­tions on social media.

Sec­ond, stud­ies com­ing out over the past five years have demon­strat­ed that col­lec­tive efforts make a big­ger impact than stand-alone efforts. When even small out­lets join togeth­er, they can have an effect larg­er than any of them would indi­vid­u­al­ly. We’ve seen that recent­ly with the pub­li­ca­tion of the Par­adise Papers and oth­er large-scale collaborations.

Our out­lets implic­it­ly under­stood those effects: The Media Con­sor­tium was found­ed in order to build a col­lab­o­ra­tive net­work. In fact, when the researchers start­ed work­ing with us to fig­ure out what they could ran­dom­ize, it was we who sug­gest­ed the exper­i­ment be built upon ran­dom­ized tim­ing of col­lab­o­ra­tive publication.

Final­ly, we have faith in the Amer­i­can peo­ple. Yes, every­one likes a cute cat pho­to or a bit of sala­cious gos­sip. But peo­ple care at a very fun­da­men­tal lev­el about the schools their kids attend, about their own repro­duc­tive choic­es, about their com­mu­ni­ties, neigh­bors and friends. They hunger for sto­ries that impact their every­day lives. And those are the sto­ries they will talk about and share. In fact, they will increase their shar­ing of sto­ries like these by 62.7 per­cent when the sto­ries orig­i­nate on out­lets they trust.

Trust mat­ters on plat­forms that too often pro­vide space for fake news. Increas­ing­ly, peo­ple will look at what out­let is pro­vid­ing them with that news. While trust in cor­po­rate news has gone down over the past few years, trust in inde­pen­dent news is strong.

The mean­ing of the Sci­ence study is sim­ple: If we want to fos­ter robust con­ver­sa­tions about nation­al pol­i­cy, we need to con­tin­ue to sup­port inde­pen­dent news outlets.

This ground­break­ing work was sup­port­ed in part by Voqal. A ver­sion of this op-ed is being simul­ta­ne­ous­ly pub­lished in mul­ti­ple outlets.

Jo Ellen Kaiser is the exec­u­tive direc­tor of The Media Consortium.
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