What is Faster At Breaking News: Twitter Or Journalism?

Social media is changing the face of journalism, mass media, and news consumption, but it might not be ready to take over for traditional newswires.

According to a recent UK study, news agencies continue to have an edge over Twitter when it comes to breaking news. 

Academics from the University of Edinburgh and University of Glasgow developed a software algorithm that tracked Twitter activity for 11 weeks in summer 2011 and examined 27 high-profile news events. Researchers then compared the results with news outlets' output from the same period. They focused on newswires that "seek to set the news agenda and break news stories ahead of one another," including the BBC, CNN, Reuters, and the New York Times.

When it came to the 27 topics that were monitored, newswires broke the story 15 times, Twitter was in the lead eight times, and in four instances, Twitter and news agencies covered events almost simultaneously. In two of the instances where Twitter lagged behind – the capture of Tripoli by Libyan rebels and the arrest of Serbian war criminal Goran Hadzin – it was more than 15 minutes behind newswires.

Twitter and newswires tended to perform equally with regard to breaking high-profile news, but the study found that when Twitter excelled at breaking sports news and disaster-related events (for instance, the car-bomb explosion in Oslo, Norway, and the start of the London riots).

As such, the study concluded that “while Twitter can break news before newswires in limited cases, for major events there is little evidence that it can replace newswire providers."

"Twitter and traditional news outlets each have their strengths in terms of delivering news," said Dr. Miles Osborne, part of the University of Edinburgh's School of Informatics. "However, Twitter can bring added value by spreading the word on events that we might not otherwise hear about, and for bringing local perspectives on major news items."

Simon Ricketts of the Guardian noted that "Twitter does its best work in the first five minutes after a disaster, and its worst in the twelve hours after that."

The study, which was supported by the UK's Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, will be presented at the Seventh International AAAI Conference On Weblogs And Social Media, in Boston, next week.