Twitter, the world’s most popular micro-blogging site, has been touted as a new form of interactive journalism; news can be broken anytime, anywhere, by anyone – so long as the stories are under 140 characters.

However, according to a collaborative study released by The Pew Research Centre’s Project for Excellence in Journalism earlier this week, news organizations have yet to maximize Twitter’s potential. Instead, they’re using it as a promotional tool to draw users to their websites.

Researchers analyzed the main and subsidiary Twitter channels of 13 national and local news organizations (broadcast, radio, print, and online) and 13 of the most followed journalists  over the course of one week in February 2011, revealing their (mostly subpar) Twitter habits.

The self-proclaimed first-of-its kind empirical study of Twitter usage found that “news organizations use Twitter in limited ways – primarily as an added means to disseminate their own material.”

93 percent of the tweets included a link back to the outlets’ own websites and the most popular topics on their Twitter feeds mirrored the headlines on their own platforms.

In terms of prompting user responses, of the 13 outlets studied, only 2 percent of the total tweets solicited information from followers, and just 1 percent were retweets from sources outside of their own organizations. The hashtag function was also deployed minimally, with an average use rate of 20 percent.

So what outlet uses Twitter best? Apparently Fox News, despite tweeting a paltry 48 times. That’s small potatoes compared to top tweeter, the Washington Post, which topped out at 664 tweets in the same timeframe.

But when it comes to mastering the Twitterverse it’s not the number of tweets, but the number of followers that counts – and that’s where Fox News is gaining the most ground.

Between February and October 2011, Fox increased its number of followers by 118 percent, the highest of the 13 outlets analyzed in the report.

Fox also happens to use the retweet function most frequently (44 percent of its tweets), is second in its use of hashtags (50 percent of the time), and is most likely to solicit information from its followers (21 percent of the time).

Pew concludes that the mainstream media are treating Twitter as if Web 2.0 hasn’t happened yet. Before 2.0, publishers controlled everything and user engagement was minimal. This, in part, was because organizations didn’t want to lose their audiences.

Now these same outlets let users give feedback easily, exchange content, and find links to other sites; they realize, according Pew, that they have to give users what they want – even if they didn’t generate it.

And so, “it bears watching whether Twitter use for mainstream news organizations evolves in the same way.”

The bottom line: Major media outlets are not engaging with users as much as they could (and should) be. And as Fox News can attest, the more (human) interaction there is between readers and disseminators, the better the chances of Twitter success.

Related