I tracked my local news on Facebook for a month. Here’s what I found.

Communication & Psychology Theory, Content Marketing

After 1,072 posts I was pleasantly surprised.

Dead Baby Found with Maggot Infested Diaper was the news story that prompted this project. The story was from Iowa. Yet, it plagued my news feed for months. I couldn’t log into my Facebook account without seeing this story over and over again. 

“Why was it showing up alongside all my local news?” I wondered. I guessed that it had become a big story for the shock factor (like Casey Anthony in 2008).

But deep in the posts comments were a few users who echoed my sentiments. Why was our local news covering this story? Surely, it is a sad case of child abuse. However, the relevance to someone in Virginia is questionable.

Then, I reflected on the shocking stories that often popped up.

Animal abuse! Murder! Florida Man!

O.K. I admit I really like Florida Man. (Teaser: He only appears 9 times in this study.)

I wanted answers. Was my local news mostly posting scandalous stories to boost user engagement? Did my busy mind only remember seeing the crazy posts? Was there something about my friend’s behavior, combined with Facebook’s algorithm that forced me to see these over and over? 

So, I spent one month logging every Facebook post from our two main local news sources: The News & Advance and ABC 13- WSET. 

The results were surprising.

To read more about my methodology, please jump to the section at the bottom of this post.

The News & Advance

Numbers

  • 468 total posts
  • About 15 posts per day
  • 318 stories from Virginia, 150 outside of Virginia

Content

  • 126 posts were focused on the community
  • Crime, Politics, Education and entertainment were the top topics, with the majority focused on stories in Virginia
  • The overwhelming majority of posts were links to articles on their website.
  • They post the obituaries once a week.

To get more insight into their editorial process, especially with regard to Facebook, I decided to reach out to them directly. 

My Letter to the Editor

(Sent via email on 07/29/2019)

Good Morning,

Like many Millennials, I get most of my news through social media and almost exclusively online. Obviously, I appreciate outlets like yours that post stories on Facebook for everyone to view. I was wondering if you could give a little insight into your social media policy.

What stories do you decide to share on Facebook? Do you have any editorial guidelines that you’re able to share with your followers?

Thank you for your time in considering my question.

Danielle Verderame  

Their Response

We publish most of the stories written by our local staff to social media.

We also sometimes publish major national breaking news, or state or national stories that we feel may be of interest to our readers. For example, we have published stories about the August 2017 political rally and deadly car attack in Charlottesville, because readers here in Lynchburg want to see that coverage.

We also have a corporate parent company that publishes 4 – 5 stories to social media for our newspaper as well as other newspapers owned by the same company. These stories “transcend geography” as I like to say—they are of interest to readers regardless of where they live. An example of this would be a story published today on steps you can take to keep your personal financial information safe in the wake of the Capital One data breach.

I hope that helps. If you have any further questions, please feel free to ask.

Matt Busse, Digital Editor

ABC 13 – WSET

Numbers

  • 604 total posts
  • About 20 posts per day
  • 231 stories from Virginia, 373 outside Virginia

Content

  • 39 posts were focused on the community
  • Crime, Politics, Human Interest stories and weather, with the majority focused on stories outside of Virginia.
  • The majority of their posts were links to articles on their website. Also, they featured a lot more media types than the News and Advance with 155 video posts and 51 photo posts.
  • George Flickinger’s weather reports, both live and prerecorded, are a treasure.

My Letter to the Editor

(Sent via email on 07/29/2019)

Good Morning,

Like many Millennials, I get most of my news through social media and almost exclusively online. Obviously, I appreciate outlets like yours that post stories on Facebook for everyone to view. I was wondering if you could give a little insight into your social media policy.

What stories do you decide to share on Facebook? Do you have any editorial guidelines that you’re able to share with your followers?

Thank you for your time in considering my question.

Danielle Verderame  

As of the time of publishing, they did not respond.

Just for Fun

Anecdotally, I noticed a high engagement on animal stories. While ABC 13- WSET perfectly split their coverage between cats and dogs (21 stories to 21 stories), The News & Advance did show a bias toward cats over dogs (52 stories to 7 stories)… at least in May 2019. 

The Takeaway: Not. That. Bad.

Overall, I am glad that I reviewed all these posts. My perception was not in alignment with reality. In fact, I was actually really impressed with The News & Advance’s balanced coverage. And ABC 13 – WSET’s coverage was not that bad.

Was my local news mostly posting scandalous stories to boost user engagement? 

I would conclude that they are doing this at times. The News and Advance is better about reporting local stories than ABC WSET 13 (which may be because WSET is a Sinclair station). Both pages focused more on “newsworthy” stories in comparison to the sensational ones. For some context, I tallied some crime posts both in and out of state.

News and Advance

MurderRapeChild CrimesShootingAnimal Abuse
In VA160321
Outside VA01110

ABC WSET 13

MurderRapeChild CrimesShootingAnimal Abuse
In VA60652
Outside VA6223106

In general, proximity matters with regard to sensational news. Otherwise the newsworthiness comes into question. Examples of sensational stories, located outside of VA, include:

As an editor-in-chief, it should be important to consider the implications of which stories make the news agenda and how we evaluate relevance. For example, a story about a single case of animal abuse from out-of-state seems out of place among stories of national or international significance (like a press conference with the Vice President of the United States) or local importance (like road closings due to weather conditions). 

71% of U.S. adults think their local news media are doing well financially; 14% have directly paid a local news source

Pew Research Center

Trending News

The category of “Trending” needs to be reevaluated with regard to all outlets, not just these pages. Just because something goes viral does not mean it deserves to be covered seriously by legitimate news outlets. 

The concern in excluding this coverage is twofold. First, it seems like they’re rejecting the low-hanging fruit of popular content. Second, it may also appear that they are biased for not covering something that people find interesting. It’s definitely a complex issue but, definitely one that should be continually examined and appraised.

Did my busy mind only remember seeing the crazy posts? 

Probably. When I actually dug through the numbers, I saw more responsible news content compared to the trivial or “trending” pieces. So, it seems that the scandalous stories stuck out to me and honestly, lowered my opinion of the news outlets. I thought of them as less “raggy” after going through their newsfeeds carefully. 

Was there something about my friend’s behavior, combined with Facebook’s algorithm that forced me to see these over and over? 

Absolutely. Facebook is notoriously opaque so, it’s impossible to specify how non-posts are amplified. We do know it’s based on a mix of engagement metrics such as, likes and comments. Also, the connections (like friends and page likes) play a role. Furthermore, your own classifications (which you can see but can’t change), influence what appears in your feed. 

As a result, I saw that dead maggot baby post over and over — regardless of how interested I would have been in other, more relevant stories. Also, I didn’t see (by choice or not) other, more newsworthy content.  

Areas for Further Study

If I were to review these pages again, I would look to answer the following questions.

  1. What types of posts get the most engagement?
  2. Which categories of news get the most visibility and why?
  3. What types of content get the most engagement?

You can actually see this as an admin on an account. As a follower, this would be a time-consuming endeavor.

If you liked this article, don’t forget to go back and like/share the post on my Facebook page.

If you found my notes interesting, feel free to reach out to me. I may be able to provide more information based on specific questions. Also, I’d love to see others replicate this with their own local news outlets. If you’d like to discuss running a similar study, feel free to contact me.


Methodology

I reviewed 1,072 combined posts from both The News & Advance and ABC 13- WSET’s Facebook pages. For the entire month of May 2019, I kept a chart where I logged every post that appeared on their respective pages. I tried to log them daily, because I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss deleted posts. However, there were a few days where I covered a span of more than 24 hours. In those cases, I continued scrolling back through their feed until I found the last post that I had logged.

On my chart, I tried to keep things simple — mostly to keep this project managable. I noted the date and the content. If the post was a link, I copied the link. If the post was another medium, I took a screenshot. 

After the month ended, I went through my chart and gave each post a category. This was a difficult endeavor because some stories fell into more than one category. In those cases, I chose to use a single category selecting what I felt was the predominant theme of the story. For example, if a story featured the murder of a teacher, I categorized that as “crime” not “education.” My reasoning was that the crime was the predominant message of the article, not the impact on education.

In many cases, I kept to broad categories like “human interest” and “community.” This choice was biased toward my goal with this study. I really wanted to see how many stories were focused on less-scandalous topics or “happy news.” So, I used these categories as a dumping ground for stories that didn’t fall tightly into firm news categories like “Sports,” “Business”, “Politics”, etc.

Additionally, I noted whether the story took place in Virginia or not. My goal with this label was to see the difference between how many stories were local versus national. I chose the state of Virginia because that was an easy dividing line when scanning stories. However, I don’t want to mislead anyone with regard to the relevance of a story based on geography. Stories that aren’t local do matter in our local communities, especially with regard to politics, education, science, health, etc. 

Additional Reading

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