As PR people, we know the value of journalism and importance of building good relationships with influential media but it is rare to see the quantifiable, measurable value of journalism, until now.

New research published in the journal Science analyzed 48 news outlets to determine the impact of articles they published and shared to their Twitter accounts. Unsurprisingly the data was clear: “journalists bear considerable responsibility for a crucial part of American Democracy,” the study lead, Harvard author Gary King, told BuzzFeed News.

48 news outlets agreed to participate in the five-year experiment where, in certain weeks, they published stories specifically chosen by the study’s scientists. According to the abstract of the study the researchers used the following approach and methods:  

After recruiting 48 mostly small media outlets, we chose groups of these outlets to write and publish articles on subjects we approved, on dates we randomly assigned. We estimated the causal effect on proximal measures, such as website pageviews and Twitter discussion of the articles’ specific subjects, and distal ones, such as national Twitter conversation in broad policy areas.

The results were profound but not all that surprising. The “intervention”, or additional buzz manufactured by the study, led to an increased discussion in each broad policy area by 62.7% (relative to the day’s volume) leading to 13,166 additional posts over the treatment week, with similar effects across population subgroups. In just the first 24 hours after the study posts went live, the study measured an increase of almost 20% on a wide range of topics. Probably most interesting is that the posts were relatively evenly distributed across political affiliation, gender and region of the United States.

Overall the study showed that news outlets and journalists have a significant impact on broader conversations beyond their literal reach. This study is a rare window into the quantifiable impact journalists make. This study, and the advent of Twitter, are helping us recognize what had previously been extremely difficult to measure, word of mouth.

I’m looking forward to more research ahead by these researchers and others trying to identify the impact of news media (and perhaps the ‘fake news’ phenomenon). An interesting follow up could study social media influencers as the primary source of information instead of journalists or explore other information platforms.