Insights, tools and research to advance journalism

Twitter and breaking news

While people end up following news in general on Twitter and use the social network “to pass the time,” the immediacy of using the network to track news in real time, as noted above, is one of the primary reasons that people say they use Twitter and the most common form of news that is followed.

To get deeper sense of that experience, we asked people to recall the last time they used the network to follow a news story as it was breaking in real time.

The great majority of those who use Twitter for news (70%) said they had used Twitter in the last month to follow a story in real time. Most of them (80%) said they did so by scrolling through their timeline.

From there, however, people became active in much more marked ways than we see in their general activity on Twitter.

For instance, fully 80% of those who have followed a breaking story in the past month said they clicked on a story as events were moving in real time. That is early double the 39% of Twitter news users who say they “always or usually” click on news stories.

More than half, 55%, also said they retweeted a story, and 53% similarly said they clicked or searched a hashtag. All of these are much higher numbers than said they take these actions routinely on Twitter. More than a third (40%) also tweeted their reaction to the story, and nearly a third (30%) said they followed someone new.

Percent
Scrolled through my timeline 80%
Clicked a link to a story about the news event 77%
Retweeted a relevant tweet or piece of news 55%
Clicked or searched a hashtag 53%
Tweeted my reaction 40%
Followed someone new 30%
Asked someone a question 13%
Other 2%
None of the above 1%

Data Source: Question: Thinking of the last month, did you look at Twitter to follow a breaking news event in real time such as a plane crash, a riot, a disaster, or the death of a notable person? / Thinking about how you used Twitter to follow this event, which of the following, if any, did you do? (Base: Twitter News Users N=3206, Followed Breaking News on Twitter N= 2244)

American Press Institute, DB5 and Twitter

Percent
Went to a search engine for more information 51%
Identified a news organization and then check repeatedly on its TV channel or websites 40%
Went to another social network for more information 34%
Other 2%
None of the above 22%

Data Source: Question: Thinking of the last month, did you look at Twitter to follow a breaking news event in real time such as a plane crash, a riot, a disaster, or the death of a notable person? / Thinking about how you used Twitter to follow this event, which of the following, if any, did you do? / Again, thinking about a breaking news event, did you take any of the following actions outside Twitter? (Base: Twitter News Users N=3206, Followed Breaking News on Twitter N= 2244)

American Press Institute, DB5 and Twitter

Many, 78%, then did something outside Twitter. Half, 51%, went to a search engine for more information; 40% found a news organization and repeatedly checked its website or TV broadcast. More than a third, 34%, went to another social network.

The study also probed the contours of how people use Twitter to follow live events. In all, 57% of Twitter news users said they had used the network in the last month to follow or “double screen” a live event in real time, such as a sports event or an entertainment show.

What did they do then? Most, 79%, scrolled through their timeline; 60% tweeted their reaction and 61% retweeted something. A third, 45%, clicked a story about the event and 44% clicked or searched a hashtag.

Percent
Scrolled through my timeline 60%
Retweeted a relevant tweet or piece of news 44%
Tweeted my reaction 43%
Clicked a link to a story about the live event 33%
Clicked or searched a hashtag 32%
Followed someone new 20%
I do not use Twitter during live events 18%
Asked someone a question 11%
Other 1%
None of the above 5%

Data Source: Question: Many people turn to Twitter during live events that are planned, such as sports or political events. In the last month, did you access and look at tweets during a live event? / Thinking about how you use Twitter during live events that you might be watching on TV or even attending, which of the following, if any, do you usually do? (Base: Twitter News Users N=3206)

American Press Institute, DB5 and Twitter

The survey also asked people to recall their most recent interaction with a particular news story on Twitter (any kind of story, whether breaking news, a feature, a trend story, news story or any other type). Most Twitter news users, 81%, could recall engaging with a specific news story on Twitter in the last week, 30% in the last day, and another 34% in the last three days.

Percent
Today 30%
Within the last 3 days but not today 34%
3-7 days ago 17%
1-4 weeks ago 11%
More than a month ago 8%

Data Source: Question: When was the last time that you engaged with a news story on Twitter in some way (e.g. retweeted, clicked a link or took some other action) (Base: Twitter News Users N=3206)

American Press Institute, DB5 and Twitter

The topics ranged fairly widely, from sports, to civil rights, current events, politics and more. No topic was higher than 22% (sports).

Topic Percent
Sports 22%
Civil rights / civil liberties 21%
Current events, general 15%
Politics and government, general 14%
National news, general 12%
Entertainment and celebrities 11%
Social issues (abortion, gay marriage, etc.) 11%
Public safety and crime 10%
Technology 10%
Local stories 9%

Data Source: Question: What was the topic of the story? (Base: Twitter News Users N=3206) Note: The survey was conducted around the time of the controversy over a police shooting and subsequent protests in Ferguson, Missouri.

American Press Institute, DB5 and Twitter

By far and away the most common form of discovery (62%) was by Twitter news users scrolling through their timeline of people they follow. The next most common form of discovering that story was by checking trending topics, but that was just 8%.

How last news story was discovered Percent
Browsing tweets from people I follow 62%
Checking trending topics 8%
Searching Twitter for keywords or hashtags 5%
Browsing customized Twitter lists 4%
Twitter push notifications to a phone or tablet 3%
Checking Twitter's "Discover" section 2%
Twitter email notifications 2%
Other 9%
None of the above 7%

Data Source: Question: How did you find out about the story? (Base: Twitter News Users N=3206)

American Press Institute, DB5 and Twitter

What did people do next?

As with the tracking of a story in real time, Twitter news users were quite active. Fully 46% said they clicked on a story, not just read tweets, 42% retweeted, 26% favorited a tweet, and 14% tweeted in their own words.

Action Percent
Clicked on a link in the tweet to a story 46%
Retweeted 42%
Favorited the tweet 26%
Shared with my own words 14%
Replied to the tweet 10%
Emailed the tweet 1%
Other 2%
None of the above 11%

Data Source: Question: What did you do on this particular occaision? (Base: Twitter News Users N=3206)

American Press Institute, DB5 and Twitter

And what motivated people to take whatever action they did? Significance emerged as the number one reason. Fully 38% said they took whatever action they did because they thought the story shed new light on an important topic. That is more than twice the number (15%) who said they thought the story was unusual or amusing. Pathos was even further down the list. Just 8% said they pursued whatever their last news encounter was on Twitter because the story was a tragic one.

Reason Percent
I thought the story shed new light on an important topic 38%
I thought the story was amusing or unusual 15%
I thought the story was tragic 8%
I thought the story would help someone 8%
I thought the story was uplifting 5%
Other 9%
None of the above 17%

Data Source: Question: Which comes closest to why you decided to take the action you did? (Base: Twitter News Users N=3206)

American Press Institute, DB5 and Twitter

Need to Know newsletter

The smart way to start your day

Each morning we scour the web for fresh useful insights in our Need to Know newsletter. Sign up below.

Featured topics

Go deeper on…

Dive deep on everything we produce about these key topics.

Strategy Studies

The best practices for innovation within news organizations

This Strategy Study presents examples and insights about journalism innovation, offering actionable advice and methods to move your journalism and business forward.