Where do Americans Turn for Breaking News?

May 8, 2011

The death of Osama Bin Laden has rightfully captured a majority of our national discourse since the announcement on the evening of May 1.  But what does the announcement demonstrate about our new media paradigm?  In the moment of breaking national news, how is information circulated?  What channels to Americans leverage to find news?

SocialFlow, a social media optimization company, analyzed Twitter on May 1 from 9:46 p.m. EST, when the White House sent a news alert regarding a pending press conference, to 11:30 p.m. EST, when the President took to the podium.

Following the news alert at 9:46 p.m., the Internet lit up with speculation regarding what Obama was going to address.  By 10:24 p.m. EST the mystery was leaked through a lone tweet.  Keith Urbahn, chief of staff to former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfield, sent this tweet to his followers:

Moments later, New York Times reporter Brian Stelter retweeted Urbahn’s tweet to his more than 50,000 followers.  After that, the news spread rapidly through Twitter, the blogosphere, and eventually to national news.

The image above demonstrates how exponentially information can travel through Twitter.  As people read an important tweet, they are likely to spread it by retweeting or creating an original tweet, building a cumulative Web of information.  SocialFlow notes:

Twitter has proven time and time again its value in tracking events as they unfold in realtime, accelerating the flow and spread of information across the globe. Twitter has become the dominant mechanism to get timely updates about events that are taking place regardless of geography, topic or even language.[i]

On May 2 people jumped to the Internet for news, analysis, and developments of the astonishing story.  This chart by Eric Savitz shows website visits for top online news sites on Monday, May 2 versus Monday, April 25:

As Felix Salmon, a financial reporter for Reuters astutely acknowledges, the increase in visitors for TV news organizations such as MSNBC, CNN, and ABC increased at a larger rate than more traditional print-only organizations such as The New York Times and The Washington Post.  Yahoo! News was the glaring exception, with nearly twice as many visitors as any other news site.  Salmon determines that despite our increased usage of the Internet, when breaking news hits, Americans still run to their television sets for real-time coverage.

While Americans still leverage their television sets to follow breaking news, its influence is waning.  The amount of Americans with televisions is decreasing and Felix Salmon notes the news on Osama Bin Laden’s death was reported via Twitter before any traditional news organization.  In addition, it is important to realize many people turning on a television and jumping online for news on May 1 or 2, were directed to a particular station or URL via social media – ultimately demonstrating the median’s growing significance in our culture and on our flow of information.