ARTICLE: News and social media attention are a zero-sum game

Spotlight by Blondinrikard Fröberg, licence CC BY 2.0

When news and social media turn their attention to someone, they start to forget others. S Mo Jang, of University of South Carolina, and Yong Jin Park, of Howard University, analysed millions of Twitter messages, thousands of newspaper articles, and hundreds of blog posts related to the Sewol ferry disaster.

In 2014, a ferry named MV Sewol capsized off the coast of South Korea. Over 300 people were killed, most of them high school students on a class trip. Two targets of blame emerged: the conservative government lead by Park Geun-Hye and the owner of the ferry, Byung-eun Yu. The researchers wanted to find out whether media focus on either figure lifted pressure from the other.

Media attention does appear to be a “zero-sum game”, the authors found. When the news stories, Twitter messages, and blog posts increased references to the ferry’s owner, mentions of South Korea’s president waned. Furthermore, this displacement effect was the same on both conservative and liberal newspapers, and traditional and social media.

The result suggest that it is possible to avoid media attention by simply directing it elsewhere. Political actors may use the mechanism to escape political responsibility, the authors warn. Moreover, social media is not able to balance out the shift in focus, Jang and Park point out.

The article “Redirecting the Focus of the Agenda” was published by the International Journal of Communication. It is freely available online on the publisher’s website (open access).

Picture: Spotlight by Blondinrikard Fröberg, licence CC BY 2.0.

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