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5 Ways That Newspapers Tackled Twitter's Unsurprising Scientific Data

Posted: 10/05/11 12:46 AM ET

"Twitter confirms it: People tend to wake up in a good mood and are happiest on weekends," according to an AP report last week. For those who missed the story, Cornell University researchers studied over 500 million Tweets sent over the span of two years. A computer separated the messages into categories based on words that indicated the moods of users. The study, which is featured in the latest issue of the journal, Science, didn't prove anything remarkable about us or our moods.

But the study did get attention for its use of social media to help us understand ourselves better. Here is how five different national publications chose to cover this study in their pages:

1. A reported piece about the study's methods: A Los Angeles Times reporter focuses on the methods utilized in the study as much as the results it delivered. She quotes a Harvard University sociologist about the "little digital bread crumbs" that we leave behind every day. "Eventually this type of research will yield important new results," he said. The reporter also cautions that Twitter users might not accurately represent the rest of the world.

Why it's good: The reporter doesn't simply re-report the findings from the AP report -- she uses it as the basis to build a larger story of her own.

2. A look ahead at what could be studied next: "Does the frequency and timing of religious expression differ by religion or region? Does the prevalence of eating disorders, as indicated by certain words in messages, differ by country or locality?" asks a Washington Post reporter. After extensively covering the Cornell study, the reporter returns to core questions about what controls our moods and makes us unique from one another.

Why it's good: Thoughtful and forward-looking, this article gets you thinking about how Twitter will not only change the way we think but also what we think about.

3. A local angle, from Alaska: "All of us high-latitude denizens can now officially blame the seasonal, daylight-swallowing tilt of the Earth for our crankiness," says an Alaska Dispatch reporter. He quotes emails from a Cornell researcher discussing Anchorage in particular. Since Alaska was one of the locales studied, its citizens have an avid interest in the results. "Places that are at very high (or very low) latitudes like Alaska are also places that have the largest variations in daylength... and are thus most likely to be susceptible to experiencing the shifts in baseline, or average, positive affect," according to an email from the researcher.

Why it's good: It appeals to the Alaskan audience, making the study directly relevant to them. Since they've been studied, the findings speak more to them. Readers expect that focus from the paper, which is not a national news source.

4. A broader piece about Twitter's significance in science: The Wall Street Journal's writer doesn't even mention the Cornell study until late into his article; he instead leaps off from August's earthquake that traveled at 5,500 Tweets per second. He cites "scholarly studies over the past 18 months" that have relied on information from social media, and informs how "Twitter crowds reflexively sorted facts from falsehoods, exercising a collective wisdom on the fly." By the time he mentions the Cornell study, it's an afterthought amid a sea of other similar studies.

Why it's good: Extremely well-researched and interesting. It shows that while this isn't the first or the most productive study using Twitter for its methods, it is in keeping with a movement.

5. A column about Twitter's importance to society: "You may or may not choose to participate, but Twitter has shown that it's an effective way to organize, a way to follow the news and, at times, a force that makes the news," says a Boston Globe writer. Now, thanks to the Cornell study -- which gave a "fascinating portrait of the planet's shifting mood and what drives it" -- and others, social media has proven it's here to stay. "The Twitter studies, though perhaps not profound in their conclusions, show that Tweets have their place in history -- and science."

Why it's good: Gives context including real-life events inspired by large-scale Tweeting. Ultimately, it's what happens that will determine Twitter's staying power. Analysis only comes afterward.

 

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