Commentary

Study: Local News On Facebook Mirrors Coverage Of Media Outlets

Facebook’s local news section mirrors the story selection found in other media outlets, with a heavy emphasis on emergencies like crime, traffic accidents and public safety, a study found.

“Social-media news consumers have an appetite for the more substantial varieties of local news,” according to researchers from the University of Minnesota and Duke University. The finding “runs contrary to the public perception that ‘soft’ stories are best suited to social media platforms.”

The researchers classified 314,000 local news stories that appeared in Facebook's “Today In” section that highlights local happenings. Sports was the biggest category, with 31% of stories, ahead of emergencies (28%), obituaries (9%), schools (9%) and civic information (6%), among other categories, according to February data.

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Facebook also provided access to eight categories of news the Federal Communications Commission had determined were critical for local news outlets: emergencies, health, education, transportation, environment, economic development, civic information and political life.

The study appeared the same week Facebook expanded the “Today In” service from 400 cities and towns across the U.S. to 6,000. The social network said 1.6 million people activated the feature to receive news from 1,200 publishers every week.

Facebook created the local news section as part of an overhaul of its news efforts amid growing criticism the company’s dominance in digital advertising had diminished the revenue of newspapers. As newspapers lost advertisers and shut down, “news deserts” started to appear in many communities.

While Facebook has become a key source of news for many Americans, it also developed a reputation for distributing “fake news” about inflammatory topics. Russian trolls relied on Facebook to distribute political propaganda aimed at swaying the U.S. electorate in favor of then-candidate Donald Trump, according to special counsel Robert Mueller.

TV is still the biggest source of local news for many Americans, although its audience has waned in the past few years, according to Pew Research Center. That decline may reflect a shift toward media consumption on mobile devices, where social media apps are consistently more popular than dedicated news apps.

Facebook and Google, whose combined 60% share of the U.S. digital ad market has led to being labeled a “duopoly,” have tried to deflect criticism from the ailing newspaper industry.

Last week, executives from seven newspaper companies lobbied Capitol Hill to urge Congress to pass the “Journalism Competition and Preservation Act.” The bill would allow publishers to collectively negotiate with the duopoly and fight their dominance in the digital content business, according to the News Media Alliance, a trade organization that represents more than 2,000 news organizations in the U.S. 

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