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With Spotlight On Alabama, Students Examine Media Coverage of Disaster, Social Media Use

Posted by Sean Flynt on 2011-04-28

Samford's 2011 academic Student Showcase continued April 28, adding oral presentations to the previous day's poster displays. The presentations included research in math and computer science, journalism and mass communication, psychology and Spanish. 

Two presentation topics stood out for their urgent, if accidental, relevance. As the students spoke, Alabama was still emerging from the catastrophic storms of the previous day. A media spotlight shown on the state even more intensely than during the BP oil spill. Social media helped people check the status of friends and family, spread grim news and figure the disaster's cost. 

In a classroom at Samford, journalism major Kasey Strickland examined perceptions of media coverage of the BP oil spill. Fellow journalism major Lauren Sharpe revealed some surprising research about Twitter usage. 

Strickland's research documented a palpable and lingering anger at news media among Gulf Coast mayors. Most in her survey of the officials gave media a significant share of the blame for the devastating loss of tourism in their cities after the spill. Many said that news reports exaggerated the effects on local beaches, overlooked the unaffected areas or otherwise misled prospective tourists. 

Strickland said two mayors in her survey blamed only BP for the negative economic impact of the spill. In fact, those officials defended journalists as simply doing the job they're meant to do. 

In spite of the perceived problems of media coverage, some mayors noted that media helped give them a voice, albeit for only a short time. Strickland said one mayor felt that once the beaches were clean, "the media just ran and didn't come back" to help rebuild the communities. 

Sharpe, soon to depart for an internship at The Washington Post, examined attitudes toward, and usage of, the Twitter social medium. The strong, immediate response to her online survey demonstrated the power of social media but also defied stereotypes about this still-new technology. 

Although most of those who responded to the survey were age 19-29--a generation often characterized as quick to accept new technology--Sharpe found significant ambivalence about Twitter even among those who use it often. Only 15 of 234 respondents listed Twitter as their favorite social medium. Ninety percent preferred Facebook. 

Sharpe said one respondent didn't like Twitter because she said she didn't have time for the famously minimalist medium. Ironically, the same respondent preferred Facebook for it's more extensive features, including photo sharing and the ability to post longer messages. Noting that Twitter also allows sharing of photos and sending messages longer than the medium's signature 140 characters, Sharpe speculated that the relative newness of Twitter might be turning off some users. 

Sharpe found that the more people used Twitter the more they valued it, eventually moving from the relatively passive receipt of content to the creation of original content. Her examination of such content seemed to confirm at least one stereotype of Twitter. Although political storms in the Middle East and literal storms in the U.S. Southeast confirm the potential value of social media in reaching out to others, they are often trivial and narcissistic. 

Presentations of Samford undergraduate research will continue April 29. Download the complete 2011 Student Showcase schedule here.  

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