Differences between the social media and mainstream press come into clearer relief when we look at specific stories that get attention week to week. This level of analysis reveals first and foremost how infrequently social media and the traditional press share the same agenda. Blogs, as seen in other measures, match up most often but still only rarely.
It is also illuminating to examine the nature of the stories that do dominate both social and traditional media in a given week. They tend to be blockbuster events, and they cut across a wide variety of topic areas – the economy, health pandemics, the deaths of well-known figures. And many major national news events don’t make it to the top of the social media agenda. The week of August 3-9, for example, while health care and the town hall protests led the mainstream press, blogs led with a story about a woman suing her college because they didn’t do enough to help her find a job, and Twitter led with an outage of Twitter itself.
In the 49 weeks studied, blogs and the mainstream press shared the top story just 13 times. The storyline shared most was the U.S. economic crisis (five weeks in all). Other storylines that drove attention on both platforms included the initial H1N1 flu outbreak in late spring, the June protests in Iran, the death of Senator Edward Kennedy in late August, and the shootings at Fort Hood in early November.
On Twitter, the top story was even less likely to be the same as in the mainstream press – just four of the 29 weeks studied, or less than one seventh of the time. (Iran, Fort Hood and the NWA terror attempt, which closed out the year.) All but one of those was also a top story among the blogs that week.
Most weeks, however, blogs and Twitter led with different stories than the mainstream press.
The week of August 17-23, for example, the traditional press led with the health care debate for the fifth week in a row as the Obama administration appeared poised to pull back its support for the so-called “public option” to be included in a final bill. That story was not among those followed closely in social media that week. There, two scientific studies that received almost no mainstream media attention led the list. For bloggers, the top story was about Canadian researchers who conducted a mathematical exercise to see if a zombie attack would lead to the collapse of civilization. And Twitterers led with a story about research by a professor at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth who discovered that 90% of U.S. paper money contained small traces of cocaine.
In another example, the week of November 30-December 6, more than a quarter (27%) of the traditional press’ newshole was occupied with the war in Afghanistan as Obama delivered a major speech outlying his plans for the U.S. role there. In the blogosphere, Afghanistan was the third largest subject of the week, following two very different subjects. First was a vote in Switzerland to ban the building of minarets, which are distinctive structures associated with Islamic mosques. And second was the subject of global warming surrounding the “climate-gate” controversy. On Twitter, Afghanistan was not among the top five stories at all. Instead, an unfortunate error on a billboard in Mobile, Alabama, led the way as a television news station created a sign featuring pictures of three news anchors and a real-time Twitter feed of breaking events. Unfortunately, that created an embarrassing juxtaposition as one passerby took a photo of the billboard at a time when the text read, "3 Accused of Gang Rape in Monroeville."