24/11/2017 11:22 GMT | Updated 24/11/2017 11:22 GMT

The Fourth Estate: Defining 'Public Interest' In The Age Of Twitter

Is there a gulf between what we care about and what’s actually being reported by news outlets?

Cynics have always told us that the biases of particular media outlets reflect the private motivations and interests of media owners. While in the past we could only speculate on the social concerns that the media might be ignoring or under-reporting, we now have data that can shed more light on the divide.

Using our MeaningMine data analytics engine, we collect and analyse over eight million online sources (including all Tier 1 media) and over 30 million social media posts every day allowing us to identify and compare the political themes that real people talk about on social media with the topics selected for our attention by editors and publishers of news sites all over the world.

The insights and implications are diverse and we couldn’t possibly hope to cover them in just one blog, but by highlighting some examples, we hope to demonstrate that the data reveals some intriguing divides which suggest a fully rounded picture of events and opinion can only really be derived from accessing a diverse range of sources.

Protests lead the way

In recent weeks, the data has shown that activism and protest have galvanised sections of the public in many different countries, generating widespread attention and high levels of both social and mainstream media coverage and conversation.

Stories include the jailing of Ecuador’s Vice President Jorge Glas following bribery allegations, the ‘anti authoritarian rule’ march in Hong Kong, electoral reform protests in Kenya and pro and anti-independence marches in Catalonia. So far, so similar: public energy and editorial agendas seem to be aligned.

Gender cover fails to live up to our interest

However when it comes to the politics of gender and sexuality, we see notable differences in coverage. These topics are the second most popular theme on social media after protest and activism. By comparison, across mainstream media, gender issues are much further down the agenda, as the sixth most discussed theme.

When we dig into the data, we see that many social media posts relate to state persecution of the gay community, including mass arrests in Egypt after an ‘LGBT crackdown’, plus discussion about the USA’s vote against the UN resolution to condemn the death penalty as punishment for homosexuality, and reactions to Saudi Arabia lifting the ban on female drivers.

Could this discrepancy simply be a case of many news outlets misjudging the public’s interest, and failing to give these stories the space they deserve?

Travel stories fail to take off

On the other hand, there are topics that seem to be given more media coverage than public interest seems to warrant. For example, online news sources are full of travel-related stories, including the recovery of Monarch passengers after the airline’s collapse, that simply aren’t generating an equivalent social media buzz. While travel topics made up 2.5% of all mainstream media coverage, bringing it in as the fourth most popular theme, on social media it was a lowly seventh with just 0.2% of attention.

It seems that while news media can be highly focused on stories related to big business, the public is often more keen to discuss overtly socio-political themes like oppressive regimes and state violence.

Gaps and overlaps

Who sets the agenda in a world of ambient, always-on news, where everyone can be a publisher and anyone can find an audience? In this era of political crises, natural disasters and horrific acts of violence, it’s more important than ever to understand how the editorial choices of mainstream news media may differ from or respond to topics of public interest articulated on social media and indeed elsewhere.

The differences revealed in the data raise intriguing questions about the shape and driving forces of digital conversations as well as profound challenges for organisations and individuals in the public eye, be they corporate, political or otherwise.

In the election of Donald Trump and the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, social media proved a more accurate indicator of how public interest would impact political reality than mainstream media. But ‘fake news’ and the ‘content farms’ that seek to generate and weaponise fabricated stories to influence opinion on social media are neglected at society’s peril.

One thing is for sure, the success with which professional media and indeed citizen journalists navigate this landscape to hold up a mirror to society in all its complexity will have profound implications for the real world in which we live long after individual articles are forgotten.