Beschrijving van het FWO-project "De macht van sociale media in het nieuws"

The power of social media in the news. A multi-method study on the influence of Twitter on sourcing patterns in journalism.

Prof. dr. Steve Paulussen, Universiteit Antwerpen
Prof. dr. Peter Van Aelst, Universiteit Antwerpen
Prof. dr. Pieter Verdegem, Universiteit Gent

This project aims to examine the conditionality of social media’s source power in today’s networked cross-media news ecology. We assume that the role of social media, and particularly Twitter, as a source in journalism will depend on the actor using social media, the medium covering the news, the type of issues in the news and the degree of routine involved in the coverage of the news. In addition, we expect that the impact of social media on source selecting in journalism may be different on a macro (inter-media), meso (intra-medium) and micro (individual) level.


The central question of this project is: how and when is social media capable of reshaping sourcing practices in journalism? This question is broken down into three research objectives.

First, we examine the flow of news between Twitter and mainstream media, with the latter further divided into newspapers, TV, radio and news websites. Research in the U.S. has pointed at the limited agenda-setting power of the blogosphere, not only because the vast majority of blogs is neglected by traditional news media, but also because bloggers tend to follow the traditional media agenda rather than offering an alternative (e.g. Messner & DiStaso, 2008). While a few studies exist on the relationship between blogs and traditional media, research into the agenda-setting power of social media sites such as Twitter is still largely missing.

Next, the study aims to take a closer look at how social media is treated as a source in mainstream news stories, and vice versa – how mainstream media are used as sources on Twitter. We will compare source attribution and actor diversity in the news content from social and mainstream media.

Third, we want to zoom in into the ways in which individual journalists assess and process social media as a source in their news stories. Literature suggests that journalists often refrain from using user-generated content due to professional concerns about the reliability, authenticity and objectivity of the source of information (Singer et al., 2011; Hermida, 2012). We will examine whether and how these concerns also affect the source power of social media as compared to traditional sources.


Based on the existing literature on journalism and political communication we argue that specific conditions influence the social media’s source power. We assume that at least four factors contribute to social media’s source power; hence, four hypotheses are formulated.

The first hypothesis (H1) is that social media’s source power in journalism is determined by the power of the actor using social media. We expect that the use of social media in mainstream journalism as well as the use of traditional news content on Twitter will be biased in favor of elite actors such as government and business officials, known experts and celebrities.

The second hypothesis (H2) is that the power of sources differs from one medium to another. The inclusion of five types of media – newspapers, TV, radio, online and social media – will allow us to examine medium-specific differences in news sourcing and agenda-setting in a cross-media environment.

The third hypothesis (H3) is that social media’s source power depends on the issue under coverage.We assume that the higher the complexity of an issue, the more likely journalists will be to rely on experts and officials, and the less likely they will use social media.

The fourth hypothesis (H4) is that social media’s source power will be greater during key events than in routine news coverage. We will investigate the role of social media as a news source during key events in comparison with routine news coverage.


The proposed multi-method research design consists of three studies: First, we will use time series analysis to examine inter-media agenda-setting between social media and mainstream news media (study 1). Next, we will conduct content analysis of how social media is handled as a source in mainstream news stories and vice versa (study 2). Finally, we conduct reconstruction interviews with professional journalists to deepen our understanding of sourcing practices in the social media age (study 3).

For the first study, we plan a large quantitative data collection effort of at least four consecutive months, in which we capture and store national news content from five different types of media in Flanders (newspapers, radio, television, news websites and Twitter). Multivariate time series analysis (cf. Vliegenthart & Walgrave, 2008) will be used for analyzing the intermedia agendasetting relationships (1) between newspapers, radio and TV; (2) between traditional offline media and their websites; (3) between news websites and Twitter; and (4) between traditional offline media and Twitter. The study will provide unique and original empirical results that will allow us to test the hypotheses H2, H3 and H4 from a macro, inter-media perspective.

The second study employs content analysis to examine source attribution and actor diversity in the news. The central goal of the content analysis is to analyze the diversity of source actors in the news, with a specific focus on the role of social media. While the primary focus of this study is on hypothesis H1, it will also allow us to test hypotheses H2, H3 and H4 on a meso, intra-media level of analysis.

To deepen our understanding of the role of social media in sourcing practices on the micro level of the individual journalist, we will conduct in-depth reconstruction interviews with professional journalists working for one of the mainstream media outlets in our research. Following the approach proposed by Reich (2009), the interviews will focus on a set of recent news stories produced by the interviewee who is then asked to make a post hoc reconstruction of each story. The interview results will enhance our interpretations of the findings from the two previous studies with regards to our four research hypotheses.


Hermida, A. (2012). Social Journalism. In E. Siapera & A. Veglis (Eds.), The Handbook of Global Online Journalism (pp. 309-328). Malden: Wiley-Blackwell.
Messner, M. & DiStaso, M. W. (2008). The Source Cycle. Journalism Studies, 9(3), 447-463.
Reich, Z. (2009). Sourcing the News. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.
Singer, J.B., Hermida, A., Domingo, D., Heinonen, A., Paulussen, S., Quandt, T., Reich, Z. & Vujnovic, M. (2011). Participatory Journalism. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell.
Vliegenthart, R. & Walgrave, S. (2008). The Contingency of Inter-media Agenda Setting. Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, 85(4), 860-877.