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News Service

News Service:

Annette Hacker, director,
(515) 294-3720

Office: (515) 294-4777

06-08-06

Contacts:

Eric Abbott, Greenlee School, (515) 294-0492 or eabbott@iastate.edu

Michael Bugeja, Greenlee School, (515) 294-0481 or bugeja@iastate.edu

Mike Ferlazzo, News Service, (515) 294-8986 or ferlazzo@iastate.edu

Newspaper study: sex and games help explain student Facebook fascination

AMES, Iowa -- Some adults just don't get the fascination students have with Facebook, a popular online networking site with estimates indicating that more than 80 percent of students at some 2,000 institutions visit www.facebook.com. That may come, in part, from the way the site is portrayed in mainstream newspaper coverage, according to a study by researchers at Iowa State University's Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication.

Using LexisNexis -- a leading online media search engine -- researchers analyzed stories about Facebook from 28 major general newspapers and 120 college newspapers from March 1, 2004 (a month after Facebook was launched) to December 2005. They found that topics dealing with "sex and games" and "relationships" were associated more closely with student newspapers' coverage of Facebook, while Facebook's history and business were covered more in main line press stories.

Research associates Fernando Anton and Rut Rey collaborated with professors Eric Abbott and Michael Bugeja -- assistant director and director of the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication, respectively -- on the study. They produced a paper titled "Facebook Me! The Social Divide Between Student and Main Line Newspapers," which has been chosen as one of the top three papers to be presented to a Special Social Divides Session at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) Annual Meeting, Aug. 2-5, in San Francisco.

Michael Bugeja environmental portrait

Michael Bugeja

Researchers found a total of 773 articles on Facebook -- 115 from main line newspapers and 658 from student newspapers. The combined number of articles produced in both main line and college newspapers increased from 119 in 2004 to 654 in 2005. The average length of the selected articles was 698 words.

Each article was then analyzed for terms that tend to relate to common themes associated with discussions about Facebook. The following eight themes were identified in that analysis:

  • University Life
  • Online Security
  • Alcohol
  • History of Facebook
  • Business of Facebook
  • Sex and Games
  • Relationships
  • Using Facebook

Results showed that the "Sex and Games" frame was almost twice as likely to be found in student media as main line media articles on Facebook, indicating that student media pay much more attention to this topic. Similarly, student media articles were 50 percent more likely to include "Relationship" frame material than main line media.

"Articles in the student press commonly include sex and relationship-related information about Facebook," said Bugeja, author of the book "Interpersonal Divide: The Search for Community in a Technological Age" (Oxford University Press, 2005). "Many students do look to this Web site as an online dating service and they are ready to use it to their advantage," said Bugeja.

By contrast, the history and business of Facebook tended to be the most popular theme in main line newspapers.

"From the beginning in Harvard University to the days of massive penetration into the college population, the main line press has been focused on the evolution of this online service and its implications," said Bugeja, who will also be moderating a related panel titled "Facing the Facebook: Administrative Issues Involving Social Networks," on Wednesday, Aug. 2, at the AEJMC Annual Meeting.

"Most of the time, Facebook was mentioned along with other technology and computing-related news and companies."

The "Using Facebook" theme was the most common overlapping theme in stories in both types of newspapers.

"This makes sense logically, because a large number of articles and columns about Facebook would talk about the novelty of this service aimed at college students and how they utilize it," said Abbott.

In addition to differences in topics covered, Abbott also noted that there were often differences in tone, with student media portraying dating and relationship capabilities of Facebook as being advantageous, convenient and desirable, while main line media often focused on possible negative aspects such as stalking.

"Student media dating articles often suggested Facebook can be used to meet new friends and find dates, while main line writers -- often parents of students -- expressed shock and amazement that their kids would use Facebook to find a date," Abbott said.

Although some might associate alcohol use with sex and games or relationship issues, portrayals in both main line and student media treated alcohol as a separate issue, and covered it about equally, Abbott said.

"From a societal point of view, the results of this study present evidence to support the social divide between how main line and university newspapers perceive and present the phenomenon of Facebook," he said. "Main line journalists focus their attention on general aspects, business, and history of the popular site and also the implications of the use and expansion of social networks. Collegiate press journalists, who are in most cases also Facebook users, have centered on the relationships that this service enables."

This study -- which builds on Bugeja's past research in this area -- is one of 10 that faculty and graduate students from the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication will be presenting at the AEJMC Annual Meeting.

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Quick look

Using LexisNexis -- a leading online media search engine -- Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication researchers analyzed stories about Facebook from 28 major general newspapers and 120 college newspapers from March 1, 2004 (a month after Facebook was launched) to December 2005. They found that topics dealing with "sex and games" and "relationships" were associated more closely with student newspapers' coverage of Facebook, while Facebook's history and business were covered more in main line press stories.