Can Facebook be a successful breaking news platform?

Recent weeks have seen a debate as to whether Facebook can catch up with Twitter and breaking news through its algorithms. (Vicipaedianus x / Wikimedia Commons under CC license)

Recent weeks have seen a debate as to whether Facebook can catch up with Twitter and breaking news through its algorithms. (Vicipaedianus x / Wikimedia Commons under CC license)

Within the last few weeks, there has been much debate on social media’s effect as a platform of journalism. The news coming out of Ferguson, Missouri in particular with the protests in light of the death of Michael Brown, has seen much reflection on what Facebook and Twitter can become for journalists.

What has come to focus is on the matter of the algorithm, how it should be written, and if it should be redone, as much of the news on Ferguson came on Twitter rather than Facebook, where much of the focus this past month was on the ice bucket challenge for the ALS Foundation. As Mathew Ingram noted on GigaOM, the tone on Facebook is set by the powerful ranking algorithms.

Indeed, because of this, some are suggesting that Twitter has become the go-to source to keep up with real time trends, news and conversations, including John Naughton of The Open University in the UK, writing in the British Sunday newspaper The Observer, noting statistics that saw higher Facebook referrals for articles related to the ice bucket challenge rather than the events in Ferguson.

Naughton then wrote this conclusion.

“What you see on Twitter is determined by who you follow,” Naughton said. “In contrast, what you see in your Facebook newsfeed is “curated” by the company’s algorithms, which try to guess what will interest you (and induce you to buy something, perhaps). Having a frank discussion about the racism that disfigures America might not fit that bill. Which is why Facebook is for ice-bucket memes and Twitter is for what’s actually going on.”

In a telephone interview with this blog, Gina Cole of the Seattle Times said Ferguson conveyed a tone for Twitter and the reaction afterward, including coverage.

It’s interesting to see how this was more nationally covered on Twitter and how many were on the ground because of Twitter,” Cole said. “You can turn Ferguson into #Ferguson and everybody knows where to go to get information.”

Cole added that at the time it was an excellent source for breaking news and discussion on the subject, compared to Facebook. Cole said the algorithms caused a difference in how the story was seen on both platforms. Cole notes the follow function on Facebook, which allows users to follow users’ posts that are public, including journalists, however was not sure how much of a role it had.

It’s odd to watch these two platforms try to become more like each other, when really as a user I think of them differently and use them differently,” Cole said, adding that you may not want to see multiple postings by one person. “If something is happening, you want a live stream of event. Twitter’s platform is more suited to that.”

But can Facebook compete with Twitter when it comes to a breaking news platform? Cole says its possible, but significant changes would need to be made.

Algorithms would have to change, posting display would have to change,” Cole said. “Facebook needs to find a way to be differently useful than Twitter. Find a niche. Find a way I can use Facebook that Twitter doesn’t offer.”

Alex Veeneman is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists based in Chicago. Veeneman also serves as Special Projects Editor and writer for Kettle Magazine, an online publication in the UK. You can tweet him @alex_veeneman.

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