The Rhythms of News Storytelling on Twitter: Coverage of the January 25th Egyptian uprising on Twitter

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The Rhythms of News Storytelling on Twitter:

Coverage of the January 25th Egyptian uprising on Twitter
Zizi Papacharissi, PhD

Professor and Head, Communication, University of Illinois-Chicago

Maria de Fatima Oliveira, PhD

Research and Project Manager, Prime Research, New York City


Zizi Papacharissi

Communication, University of Illinois at Chicago

1140A BSB, MC132

1007 W Harrison St, Chicago, IL 60654 USA


Paper presented at the World Association for Public Opinion Research Conference, Amsterdam, September 2011.

Zizi Papacharissi (PhD, University of Texas at Austin, 2000) is Professor and Head of the Department of Communication, at the University of Illinois-Chicago. Her work focuses on political and social uses and consequences of newer media. She recently edited A Networked Self: Identity, Community and Culture on Social Network Sites (Routledge, 2010) and authored A Private Sphere: Democracy in a Digital Age (Polity, 2010).
Dr. Maria Oliveira is a research and project manager at PRIME Research. She is the author and co-author of several journal articles and book chapters about Global Public Relations and Intercultural Communication. Her work has been published in Journal of Public Relations Research, The International Journal of Press and Politics, and Social Responsibility Journal, and she has worked for governmental agencies, for profit, and non-profit organizations in Brazil, Mexico, and the U.S.

Abstract: This study traces the progression of the rhythms of news storytelling on Twitter via following the #egypt hashtag, used most prominently during the Egyptian uprising that led to the resignation of Hosni Mubarak. A frequency analysis is combined with computerized content and an in-depth discourse analysis to study news values and the form that news reported via #egypt took on, during the time period of January 25 to February 25. Results point to a hybridity of old and newer news values, with emphasis on the drama of instantaneity, the crowdsourcing of elites, solidarity, and ambience. The resulting stream of news is affective, combining news, opinion and emotion to the point where discerning one from the other is difficult, and doing so misses the point.

The Rhythms of News Storytelling on Twitter:

Coverage of the January 25th Egyptian uprising on Twitter

Twitter, a micro-blogging service launched in 2006 and presently claiming 190 million individual users is increasingly being incorporated into news storytelling (Schonfield, 2010). Even though only about 5% of Twitter content is devoted to news, mainstream news networks frequently poll the twitterverse for public opinion, independent bloggers use it to promote their or other content, and journalists use it to supplement their own reporting (Ryan, 2009). Blogs and microblogs rise to prominence as news disseminators on occasions when access to mainstream news and/or other communication media is restricted or blocked (Howard, 2011; Papacharissi, 2009). For example, protests over the contested Iranian Election results of 2009 were live blogged on Twitter, once the Iranian government restricted access to mainstream media, independent journalists, mobile telephony, and other communication technologies. More recently, Egyptian protests that led to the resignation of ex-President Mubarak were organized through a complex network of communication that combined heavy Twitter and Facebook use with other forms of interpersonal communication. Egyptian freedom fighters have a tradition of using social media to stay connected and informed. Prior to the January 25, 2011 uprisings, Egyptian bloggers used Twitter routinely to report news, but also their own whereabouts, in the event they were captured and tortured by government officials, frequently generating publicity on behalf of imprisoned bloggers. This study explores the uses of Twitter as a news reporting mechanism during the Egyptian January 25th uprisings.

During this period, access to mainstream media was variably blocked, foreign and native journalists were intimidated and discouraged from reporting the news, and access to the internet was controlled and eventually shut down. Twitter provided a continuous and constant stream of events in real time. At a time when most news networks are forced to shut down foreign bureaus due to financial constraints, news feeds produced by citizens committing acts of journalism complement or substitute mainstream media reporting. Especially during events to which media access or coverage has been restricted, these news feeds become of central importance to both producers and consumers of news. This content analysis examines Twitter archives spanning the time period ranging from January 25 to February 25, for the #egypt hashtag, used most prominently during the uprising. A computerized content computer-mediated text analysis is employed to identify volume and content patterns, topics, and prominent frames in the twitter posts included. The computer-mediated text analysis is conducted concurrently with a more focused discourse analysis, which examines both the patterns plotted by the content analysis and the archives themselves to understand the form and the content of news that is communicated via Twitter. Using prior seminal work that places emphasis on the form of news and its relevance to news values and socio-cultural context (e.g., Barnhurst & Nerone, 2002; Semetko, Blumler, Gurevitch, & Weaver, 1991, van Dijk, 1988), this study attempts to describe, map, and explain the evolving rhythms of news storytelling on Twitter, through the events of the 2011 Egyptian uprisings.

Twitter as news reporting mechanism

Growing research interest is dedicated to studies of how Twitter is employed as a news reporting platform. As a micro-blogging service, Twitter permits users to send short messages, or tweets, of 140 or fewer characters, about any topic to a select audience of followers. Tweets are potentially accessible to publics broader than the individual’s followers, depending on whether the individual has set up the account to be public or private, and on how much they are re-broadcast to others via networks of followers. Individuals may associate their tweets with particular topics or content categories by inserting tags, known as hashtags, in their tweets. These hashtags, together with the repetition of words within tweets produce popular topics of conversation on twitter, known as trending topics. Research has shown that the majority of trending topics on Twitter tend to be headlines of breaking or persistent news on sports, cities, or brands (Kwak et al., 2010). Most mainstream media outlets possess a twitter feed and several journalists maintain their own news feeds, independent of or within the news organizations they work for. CNN, CNN Breaking News, The New York Times, Breaking News, The Onion, Time, and People magazine are within the top 100 most followed accounts on Twitter (, May 2011).

Individual journalists and bloggers frequently also post news updates or break stories via their own news feeds. During the wave of Middle East uprisings in early 2011, widely known as the Arab Spring, most journalists reported live on Twitter and TV simultaneously or interchangeably. Reports of Osama Bin Laden were first leaked via the Twitter accounts of prominent journalists, seconds before they were leaked on TV, and of course several minutes before President Obama’s address. In the aftermath of the Iranian election in 2009, and during the wave of Arab Spring uprisings, several of which are still underway, citizens took to twitter when other channels of information dissemination were shut down, to post and read news updates. In those instances, journalists and independent citizens engaging in acts of journalism provided constant streams of news updates via Twitter.

Early studies suggest that news values driving the dissemination of news via TV and print media further guide the reporting of news via Twitter, possibly leading to a lack of new dissemination strategies. News organizations typically forward print and broadcast stories to their news feeds, delivering the same news, over a different platform (Armstrong &Gao, 2010a). These news feeds may feature more multimedia reports, but they also reflect a slight male bias, as stories with male mentions tend to be retweeted more often than stories with female mentions (Armstrong & Gao, 2010b). Such uses may undermine the potential of Twitter, which works best in premediated situations where the story is changing so quickly, that TV or print media do not have the time to develop or mediate a fully sourced story, and examples of such situations include critical events like disasters, accidents, riots, and political events (Farhi, 2009; Grusin, 2010). Moreover, journalists using Twitter frequently experience confusion between their roles as reporters, editors, critics, or independent individuals, leading them to use twitter in a way that supplements their traditional role as information disseminators and prompting news agencies to issue guidelines regarding the use of social media (Ahmad, 2010; Emmett, 2009). The confluence and tension between news, fact, opinion, subjectivity and objectivity characterizes most of the news feeds twitter users consult. These trends suggest that already eroding boundaries will dissolve further, leaning toward uses of Twitter as a mechanism of public accountability, among other things (Ettema, 2009, McNair, 2009). We would argue that a platform like Twitter affords journalists and citizens a direct hand at premediating, and mediating a news story.

Whereas feeds of news organizations and journalists are modeled after the news values and practices of the parent organizations, organically developed hashtag feeds deviate from the organizational logic of prominent news values to provide coherence by blending fact with opinion, and objectivity with subjectivity. Inclusive of both news and conversations about the news, hashtags exploit the affordances of the Twitter platform more aggressively or innovatively than any news organization. They highlight the character of the platform as a social awareness stream, inclusive of news, among other things. Viewed alternatively, hashtags present a user-generated collaborative argument on what is news. Recognizing that is perhaps where the innovative uses of Twitter lie, several scholars examine emerging trends on twitter by studying the content of hashtags. Specifically, Yardi and boyd (2010a) studied users and content topics in a selection of hashtags and found that local topics featured denser social connectivity between posting users. Some research has indicated that social connectivity for breaking news is lower (Sakaki et al, 2010), while others have found that content in select hashtags follows a power-law distribution in terms of popularity, time, and geolocation (Singh and Jain, 2010). Building upon previous research, Naaman et al. (2010) distinguished between trends in exogenous categories, capturing an activity, interest, or event originating outside of the Twitter system (e.g., a natural disaster), and endogenous categories, capturing Twitter-only activities that do not correspond to external events (e.g., a popular post by a celebrity). Exogenous trends tended to generate more independent contributions, whereas endogenous trends tended to be more symmetrical, possibly reflecting a presence of stronger ties, except for local events, which, unlike other exogenous events, featured more discussion and less forwarding of information. Applied to Egyptian uprisings, these findings would suggest that social media use by those sharing a local connection might be characterized by cohesion and plurality of opinion expression.

In further investigations of the relationship between posts and connectivity, Yardi and boyd (2010b) studied twitter posts around controversial topics and found that replies between like-minded individuals strengthened group identity, whereas replies between different minded individuals reinforced in-group and out-group affiliation. As a result, individuals increased their awareness of broader viewpoints but were restricted in their ability to engage in meaningful conversation. More recently, Wu, Hofman, Mason and Watts (2011) examined ‘who says what to whom on Twitter’ by looking at Twitter lists- a feature that permits users to organize people they follow into lists organized topically and found evidence of homophily in sharing.

Additional research underscores the connection between shared geo-locality and communal bonds strengthened via twitter posts, permitting forms of “peripheral awareness and ambient community” (Erickson, 2010, p. 1194). The practice of following opinion leaders on Twitter has been likened to emerging disciplines of listening in social media, characterized by background listening, reciprocal listening, and delegated listening (Crawford, 2009). In this manner, the practice of listening may strengthen connectedness with others (Hennenburg et al., 2009), resemble the practices of conversation (Honeycutt and Herring, 2009; Steiner, 2009), and add elements of physicality to web design (Hohl, 2009).

Information sharing and conversational uses of Twitter by journalists, news organizations, and individual users highlight the relevance of the platform as a social awareness system. As such, it introduces hybridity into the news system, by further blurring boundaries between information, news, and entertainment and by creating “subtle, but important shifts in the balance of power in shaping news production” (Chadwick, 2011, p. 6). Hermida (2010) terms this news environment ambient, suggesting that the “broad, asynchronous, light-weight and always-on” aspect of platforms like Twitter afford individuals “an awareness system [with] diverse means to collect, communicate, share and display news and information, serving diverse purposes . . . on different levels of engagement (p. 301). Within this system, homophily and intraelite competition present dominant features, without at the same time excluding motivated and strategically oriented actors from influencing the resulting agenda of issues (Chadwick, 2011). The ambience, homophily, and strengthening of bonds between those sharing a geo-local connection are essential in understanding the sociotechnical texture of Twitter, especially in situations that call for individuals to mobilize and show solidarity.

Twitter as a news sharing mechanism during uprisings

During protests, uprisings, or periods of political instability, Twitter is frequently used to call networked publics into being, and into action. Understandably, the homophily encouraged by Twitter lends itself to calls for solidarity among publics, imagined or actual, that share a common set of goals. The enhanced connectivity experienced between Twitter users with shared geo-locations could also help activate and deepen ties during uprisings. Ultimately, the ambient nature of this social awareness environment lends itself to providing an always-on, interconnected web of information that mobilized actors might utilize, serving as more efficient and “electronic word of mouth” (Jansen et al., 2009, p. 2169). At the same time, it permits individuals to change the dynamics of conflict coverage and shape how events are covered, and possibly, how history is written (Hamdy, 2010). A study of the linguistic construction of textual messages on blogs and Twitter in the Nigerian 2007 election revealed that citizens used these media to mobilize, participate in public discussions, and serve as watchdogs during the electoral process (Ifukor, 2011). Under these circumstances, platforms like Twitter force a radical pluralization of news dissemination and democratic processes (Dahlberg, 2010). In regimes where or during times when media are controlled, inaccessible, or not trusted, platforms like Twitter permit individuals to bypass traditional gatekeepers and contribute directly to the news process. However, these instances also expose the temporal incompatibilities between Twitter as news platform and the conventions of journalism. For instance, during the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, Twitter was useful in communicating breaking news, but also exposed the risks associated with reporting unsourced rumor as fact (Jewitt, 2009).

In recent protests following the Iranian 2009 election, Twitter permitted communication despite state censorship of other media coverage and access, affording citizens the opportunity to publish information and broadcast news, audio, and video account to other media and the world watching. Still, Twitter was accessible only to those with access to it and the skills to use it. Moreover, Iran’s online censorship and surveillance made posting information and having conversations via Twitter unsafe. In fact, the majority of tweets during the post-election protests came form outside the country, with only few updates coming from influential individuals inside the country (Christensen, 2009). In this case, the role of Twitter is better understood if reconceptualized “not in terms of whom the medium allowed to speak, but in terms of who could listen because of the medium” (Solow-Niederman, 2010, p. 35). As a result, Twitter is important because it allows a global audience to listen in on a conflict. The importance of listening to what is happening in remote parts of the world is heightened, as access to other media is blocked and Twitter becomes the primary mechanism of connection with those remote publics. Finally, as Twitter becomes the only, or primary channel of information we can tune in to, the form of news on Twitter and the values that belie it become of central importance. If that is the only channel of information sharing we can access, then what exactly are we listening to?

News values and the form of news on Twitter

Research on the relevance of Twitter as a news platform suggests that it provides an ambient, always on social awareness environment, where news-related and social information is shared. Information shared is multi-perspectival and story narratives are constructed organically and collaboratively, as individual citizens report the news and other information they deem relevant. Posts are informative or conversational, or both at the same time. This practice is important to those who post and to those who read or ‘listen in.’ The relevance of Twitter as a news platform is heightened when other news platforms are silenced, for a variety of reasons. In those cases, Twitter may enable glocal audiences to listen in and report on events deemed important.

If Twitter is to rise to such prominence as a news medium, what are the news values that describe its character as a medium for news sharing? The question of news values is an important one and one from which research on news media frequently commences, yet it has yet to be fully examined for the news environment of Twitter. Scholars interested in media have studied and theorized extensively on news values prevalent in a variety of media. Galtung and Ruge (1965) provided a first list of news values that determine what is most likely to be covered, including the news values of frequency, threshold, unambiguity, meaningfulness, consonance, unexpectedness, continuity, compositional balance, elite nations/regions, elite people, and personification. These have morphed into the eight traditional news values that are observed in most newsrooms and imparted in most journalism schools: impact, timeliness, prominence, proximity, bizarreness, conflict, currency, and human interest. These values are not reflective of all journalistic traditions, and may be more frequently encountered in paradigms of journalism that are more pragmatic and prevalent in the US. On the contrary, sacerdotal orientations that characterize news approaches in several European countries frequently cover several events as inherently important, regardless of the aforementioned news values (Semetko et al., 1984).

Gans (1984), in the seminal Deciding What’s News, explained that journalists based most of their decisions on what makes news on the following assumptions, or values: ethnocentrism, altruistic democracy, responsible capitalism, small town pastoralism, individualism, and moderatism. Some have associated these values with the objectivity paradigm, dominant in US journalism, and contrasted it to the partisan paradigm of news reporting, prevalent in a majority of countries in the rest of the world (e.g., Capella & Jamieson, 1997; Patterson, 1994). The tendency to identify two sides to a story and balance them out so as to produce objectivity has been associated with the tendency to report events episodically. By contrast, partisan coverage is more subjective but also frequently permits contextual and thematic coverage (e.g., Capella & Jamieson, 1997). Many researchers have explained how these differing news values are further reproduced, challenged and negotiated by media professionals, routines, organizations, extramedia factors, and ideological perspectives (Bennett, 1996; Schudson, 2003; Shoemaker & Reese, 19910 McQuail (2002) has synthesized this work to present a more recent list of primary news values in western media: large scale of events, closeness to home, clarity of meaning, short time scale, relevance, consonance, personification, negativity, significance, and drama and action. Still, as Hartley (1982) clarified, news values are ever-evolving and are about news stories and not news events themselves. Therefore, he offered the following categories that more fluid and inclusive of a greater variety of news cultures, and thus, more fitting to the context of this study:

  • News values prioritise stories about events that are recent, sudden, unambiguous, predictable, relevant and close (to the relevant culture/class/location).

  • Priority is given to stories about the economy, government politics, industry and business, foreign affairs and domestic affairs-either of conflict or human interest- disasters and sport.

  • Priority is given to elite nations (the US, the UK, Europe, etc.) and elite people.

  • News values often involve appeals to dominant ideologies and discourses. What is cultural and/or historical will be presented as natural and consensual.

  • News stories need to appeal to readers/viewers so they must be commonsensical, entertaining and dramatic (like fiction), and visual (Hartley, 2002, p. 166).

News values shape how events turn into news stories. In the context of Twitter, news may be broadcast instantaneously and stories develop organically and collaboratively. News frames may be constructed by citizens and journalists contributing to the feed of news in atomized yet networked mode, and news values may be similarly crowdsourced to the values of the contributing publics. Or, they may reflect enduring news values which are the products of institutions and ideologies that have long been in place. In the context of uprisings, these institutions and ideologies of course may come under question or attack. This study investigates the news values of storytelling on Twitter and asks:

RQ1: What news values were prevalent in the Twitter news streams capturing the events of the 2011 Egyptian uprising?

News values shape the form of news stories told. Events take on the form of a narrative relatable to a variety of publics and audiences, and this form is historically sensitive (Nerone and Barnhurst, 2001). The organization and presentation of news reflects news values, and how news organizations relate to their publics, perceive audiences, and balance market and news values. News organizations have a long history of slow and reluctant adjustment to the affordances of newer platforms, frequently employing technological innovations, but not incorporating the new media “affect” into the dominant form of news (Barnhurst, 2010a&b, 2011). Newer media require a reconsideration of market values and are often temporally incompatible with fact checking and other conventions of journalism. News institutions must reconcile and market and news values, but what form does news take on when citizens and journalists construct narratives collaboratively in circumstances of political instability? How do the affordances of Twitter inform these pluralized narratives? A second question this study undertakes then is:

RQ2: What form did news storytelling on Twitter take during the recent 2011 Egyptian uprising?

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