When Asiana Airlines Flight 214 crash-landed on the runway of San Francisco International Airport July 6, it sparked the inevitable flurry of Tweets. Within minutes of the impact, terms such as “Boeing 777” rocketed to the top of Twitter’s Trends list; hundreds of users began retweeting every scrap of information about the incident and its aftermath.
By this point, Twitter acting as a crowdsourced newswire in the first minutes of a national or global event isn’t unusual—if anything, it’s become something of a norm. When hurricane Sandy demolished portions of New York City in the fall of 2012, for example, the social network became a go-to source of information about everything from power outages to the best places to find supplies, constantly updated and deeply interactive. While the network does have its vulnerabilities—as Sandy and the fake White House bombing earlier this year demonstrated, a malicious Twitter user is capable of spreading minor panic with false Tweets—Twitter has proven such a speedy source of information that people have been half-joking for years about it transcending traditional news networks in importance.
But not so fast: a new poll by Gallup suggests that, despite the prevalence of social networks, the majority of Americans (55 percent, to be exact) continue to rely on television as their main source of news. By contrast, a mere 21 percent of respondents relied on the Internet as a primary news channel, with just 2 percent citing “Facebook/Twitter/social media” as their main source. That might sound pretty low, but it actually surpasses national newspapers such as The New York Times (with 1 percent) and The Wall Street Journal (1 percent), as well as NPR (also 1 percent).
A recent study by researchers at the University of Edinburgh and Glasgow reinforces the Gallup data. Studying 51 million Tweets over 11 weeks in the summer of 2011, and comparing that data with the output from various news outlets (including CNN, Reuters, BBC, and The New York Times), they found that the “traditional” outlets were often faster in reporting on major events.
“Twitter’s main benefits for news are bringing additional coverage of events, and for sharing news items of interest to niche audiences or with a short lifespan, such as local sports results,” read a summary posted on the University of Edinburgh’s news Website. “When Twitter outperformed newswires for speed, it was for mainly for sport and disaster-related events.”
In other words, Twitter has evolved into a solid way for people to quickly learn about events—but it hasn’t quite eclipsed more traditional news-delivery systems.