News agencies continue to have an edge over Twitter in being first with news reports, according to a new study by scientists at the Universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Research into reporting of news events by Twitter and newswire services has found that while Twitter can sometimes break news before newswires, for major events there is little evidence that the social media site can replace traditional news outlets.

Twitter’s main benefits for news include 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. Twitter and traditional news outlets each have their strengths in terms of delivering news, the researchers say.

Scientists at the universities developed a software algorithm to track Twitter activity, used it to study 51 million tweets over 11 weeks and compared these with output from news outlets for the same period. The newswires tracked included the BBC, CNN, Reuters and the New York Times. The scientists were able to examine Twitter messages relating to major news items. They also identified a large amount of minor news items that had featured on Twitter but had been ignored by the mainstream media.

Neither Twitter nor newswires was regularly faster than the other in breaking high-profile news. When Twitter outperformed newswires for speed, it was mainly for sports and disaster-related events, the findings showed. The study was supported by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

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