Does Twitter really drive today’s news agenda?

An increasing number of people are shunning the traditional news outlets of TV and newspapers and are looking to the online world to get their daily news fix. While the evidence of this shift in news consumption is not in dispute, is there a parallel change in how news stories are sourced and produced? Is professional journalism being shunned in favour of the sofa soap-box and bedroom punditry?

At last week’s CIMTIG seminar an impressive panel of media luminaries debated the influence of social media (mainly Twitter) in setting the agenda for the media. Moderated by Danny Rogers of the Brand Republic, the panelists were: Carla Buzasi, Editor in Chief of the  Huffington Post; Robin Grant, Managing Director of We Are Social; Steve Keenan, Online Travel Editor of The Sunday Times; Allan Lambert, Head of Retail Sales at Bourne Leisure Ltd; and Paul Steele, the travel blogger and Twitter heavyweight better known as The Bald Hiker.

During the lively and informative 90 minute debate each speaker offered insights from their own distinctive viewpoint, although I got the feeling at the end that we were no closer to answering the question posed in the seminar title ‘Whose Voice is it Anyway?’

It’s increasingly the case at seminars on social media the bulk of the conversation seems to be about Twitter. Certainly in terms of spreading news it is streets ahead of any other platform. The ability to send a newsflash, perhaps with a photo attached, and have that shared by millions in a matter of minutes is what Twitter does best.

But is social media actually driving the new agenda or is it mainly a tool that helps spread stories in a way that was never previously possible?

Look at the most influential Twitter news sources in the UK – they are mainly the established news channels. BBC, Channel 4 and Reuters are all consistently retweeted when they share breaking news on Twitter, as are the national newspapers who now need to constantly produce and update stories. Along with well-known news organisations it is the famous journalists and reporters that we know from TV and radio who carry the most influence online.

The millions of amateur broadcasters out there can influence how far and how fast a message is spread, but perhaps we still rely on the same old sources to establish credibility for those messages.

A striking exception to this has been in the Middle East this year. In the complete absence of a free press several brave individuals, often risking their lives to do so, have taken on the role of reporter to the outside world and have used Twitter as their medium. Here, Twitter really has driven the news agenda, with the BBC and other networks often relying on, and even quoting, those on the ground who have been sending out messages of hope and distress.

So perhaps the old sources of news retain more influence in today’s world than we give them credit for. Perhaps that is something for which we should be thankful.

Where the online world does have a powerful influence is in ensuring that the stories that people care about get the attention that they deserve. Time and time again the online world has exposed those who have tried to bury their story away from the public gaze. Whenever individuals or corporations have tried to suppress negative stories by unseemly PR tactics or by legal methods that have appeared dishonest, the masses have used Twitter to give that story the maximum coverage. Here, just as elsewhere in the world, Twitter is most effective at driving the news when the truth is being hidden.


Disclosure: I was provided with a media pass that allowed me to attend the CIMTIG  seminar free of charge

Author Information

Freelance travel writer

6 Responses to “Does Twitter really drive today’s news agenda?”

  1. Interesting thoughts, Andy – thank you. I think the key point to keep hold of here is that Twitter is not a source. It’s a medium.

    If your post was titled “Does the printing press really drive today’s news agenda?” or “Does the internet really drive today’s news agenda?” it would be, well, you know.

    Twitter, as you point out, is not replacing MSM/’professional journalism’ (whatever you’d like to call it) because they are complementary. Sources can use both to get their material out. Journalists – professional and otherwise – can use both, in a balanced approach of sourcing, challenging, verifying and/or discrediting which seems remarkably good so far at filtering out BS from both ‘sides’. Consumers can use both to build up a more nuanced picture of a news event.


    October 24, 2011 at 10:56 am
  2. What Twitter does is allow everyone to broadcast with no entry barrier. I don’t think this has happened in the past (Facebook is friends-only, the blogosphere too disparate and unchanneled). As with all broadcasting, those with a bigger audience can make the most impact. Hence BBC News or CNN or the Daily Mail will have far bigger impact on the news agenda than any Twitter account or Twitterstorm (which is usually reactionary anyway).

    Big news organisations still set the news agenda, but they often go searching on Twitter for stories. Or individuals within said organisation can be pointed in the direction of a story by Twitter. That can change the news agenda, in much the same way that a good contacts book has always been able to change the news agenda.

    October 24, 2011 at 11:17 am
  3. I would agree with the assessments put forth in this article about the power of social media to drive stories. Unless less traditional sources have an awesome breaking story, most people still look to full time journalists and news sources for news.

    October 24, 2011 at 11:48 pm
  4. Thanks for the comments. I do sometimes wonder if Twitter give some journalists an excuse to be a bit lazy. Too often (especially on BBC stories) there is a set of Twitter quotes that add nothing to the story but that have been copied and pasted from the author’s Twitter stream. Presumably in the ‘old days’ they would have had to find ‘the man in the street’ to get his views and now these vox pops are available in abundance.

    Suspect we’ll look at this debate quite differently in another 5 years time.

    October 25, 2011 at 9:23 am
  5. When the London riots were on and there was a news blackout to try and deter further rioting, Twitter was the only way those of us in London close to the rioting were able to find out what was really going on. The combination of tweets and helicopter noise overhead was the only way to know how far or near the action was.

    I think Twitter plays a key role for breaking news but agree that some London papers (albeit free) are full of personal low interest stories gleaned from social channels that would rightly never have been published pre social media.

    Twitter has empowered some people to share great content and Huffington Post is testament to that but it has also created some lazy, low quality journalism.

    October 25, 2011 at 8:53 pm
  6. I am not sure twitter or any other medium drives the news. It does however enable immediate broadcasting of any event any where in the world there is a connection. In WWII the public waited one or two months to view newsreels about the war. That changed in Vietnam when stories could be broadcast within a day or so. In today’s world someone can tweet an incident, capture the video on their cell and have it go viral within minutes. This brings up another dilemma. In days gone by reporters would hold off on a story if law enforcement or the government convinced them the story was detrimental to the overall good or security. With instant reporting that is no longer the case. What would have happened if someone tweeted the fact that thousands of troops were seen departing England on D-Day?

    October 30, 2011 at 11:49 pm