How News Publishers’ Audiences Are Reacting on Facebook [Study]

, How News Publishers’ Audiences Are Reacting on Facebook [Study]

When Facebook released Reactions in February 2016 – allowing users to “love,” “haha,” “wow,” “angry,” and “sad” posts – there was significant controversy. The Oatmeal posted a comic asking Facebook for additional Reactions incluing “I just threw up in my mouth,” “I only interact with you on Facebook so I don’t have to interact with you in person,” and other NSFW (not safe for work) options. One Slate article about Facebook’s latest move was titled, “Facebook Reactions Are Not Wow” and had a picture of a dog in a cone as its main photo. Others were more positive, claiming the Reactions would make News Feeds more meaningful.

In the face of this uproar, we decided to look at eight top news publishers on Facebook. We analyzed the extent to which and the way in which their audiences were using Reactions in order to gain insights into Facebook’s new feature as well as each publisher’s audience.

To find out more, we looked at the top three posts (ranked by number of total Reactions) for CNN, Fox News, The Huffington Post, The New York Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and Yahoo News for each day from March 14, 2016, to March 20, 2016.


Overall, we found that users loved to “love” posts. Fifty-four percent of all nonlike Reactions were loves. Users were less likely to use the two negative Reactions, angry and sad.


These rankings reflect a number of factors. First, they signify the emotional content of posts. They also reflect the emotions that each follower is likely to bring to the publisher’s page. In order to isolate the first factor from the second factor, we also examined two stories (one negative and one positive) that were covered in similar ways by publishers. That analysis is below.

The Bandwagon Effect of Facebook Reactions

There was a strong correlation between number of likes and number of nonlike reactions. Fox News, The Huffington Post, and CNN had the most average likes per top-performing post (in that order); they also had the highest average number of nonlike Reactions. The overall averages for all the publishers that we looked at were:

Average Number of Likes: 6,400 Likes
Average Number of Nonlike Reactions: 1,500 Nonlike Reactions
Average Nonlike-to-Like Ratio: 2,000 Nonlike Reactions per 10,000 Likes 

In general, the more average likes per post a page received, the higher its ratio of nonlike Reactions to likes. There were two interesting exceptions to this trend. The Wall Street Journal had an average of 1,500 likes per top-performing post, putting it last on our list. The New York Times had an average of 8,500 likes per post, ranking it in fourth place. The Wall Street Journal audience was much more expressive; top-performing Wall Street Journal posts had an average of 1,400 nonlike Reactions per 10,000 likes. The New York Times audience used fewer than 1,000 nonlike Reactions per 10,000 likes.

How Are They Reacting?

We also looked at which news publishers’ followers used the love, haha, angry, wow, and sad Reactions the most, as a percentage of all nonlike Reactions. 

After likes, loves were the most used Reactions for all publishers. They accounted for more than 50 percent of nonlike posts for all publishers, except The Wall Street Journal, for which loves accounted for only 33 percent of nonlike Reactions.


The Huffington Post’s audience were the most likely to use the haha Reaction, with The Wall Street Journal trailing not far behind. CNN and Fox News followers were the least likely to use the haha Reaction, with haha accounting for only 8 percent of all nonlike Reactions.


Fox News had the angriest followers by a large margin. Twenty-one percent of Fox News’ nonlike reactions were angry. The Wall Street Journal was in second place with angry accounting for 15 percent of their nonlike Reactions. USA Today had the least angry followers.


Wow Reactions accounted for a quarter or more of all nonlike reactions for Yahoo News, USA Today, and CNN followers. The Fox News audience was the least flappable.


Sad was used the least consistently across publishers’ followers. Sad accounted for 12 percent of The Wall Street Journal’s nonlike Reactions, but only 1 percent for Yahoo News.


How Do News Publishers’ Followers React to the Same Stories?

We also compared Reactions to two stories that were presented in similar manners across publishers. We chose one serious story, the first breaking news report about the March 22 Brussels attack; and one silly story, Pi Day (March 14).

March 22 Brussels Attack

In the early morning of March 22, there were explosions in Brussels near the airport and a subway car. The first posts about the attack were very similar across publishers. We’ve listed the text in each news publisher’s Facebook post as well as the headline of the article that they linked to in their posts. Although the posts were made early morning, they received an average of 3,600 total Reactions (including likes). We found that with this highly emotional story, followers were more likely to use Reactions other than like. In fact, The Huffington Post and The New York Times followers used nonlike Reactions more than they liked.


When we examined nonlike Reactions independently, we found that Fox News had the angriest following, mirroring our results when we looked at a larger sample of posts. The Huffington Post had the saddest following in response to the paper’s post about the attack, and CNN’s followers were most likely to wow.  Although there were a few scattered love and haha Reactions, (thankfully) they accounted for fewer than one ten-thousandth of a percent of Reactions.

Pi Day

Only 4 of the 8 publishers posted about Pi Day (CNN, Fox News, The New York Times, and USA Today). These posts received an average of 3,700 total Reactions (including likes), meaning that engagement levels were similar to those in the Brussels post. However, the average nonlike-to-like ratio was only 400 nonlike Reactions per 10,000 likes. Compared with the posts about the Brussels attack, audiences were less compelled to express alternative Reactions to Pi Day. 


We looked at the top three posts (ranked by the number of total Reactions) for CNN, Fox News, The Huffington Post, The New York Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and Yahoo News for each day from March 14, 2016, to March 20, 2016. We recorded the number of likes, loves, hahas, wows, angries, and sads each of the 169 posts received. We also compared like counts for posts across two news stories: the March 22 attack in Brussels and Pi Day (March 14).

We recorded the distribution of Reactions for each publisher’s first post about the March 22 Brussels attack (covered by all eight publishers) as well as the top-performing (by total Reaction count) for Pi Day posts (covered by 5 of the 8 publishers).

Note: Facebook doesn’t display exact number of Reactions for quantities over 1,000. Instead, it displays the number of reactions rounded to the largest hundred for Reactions between 1,000 and 10,000. For Reactions over 1,000, it displays them rounded to the nearest thousand. If a post displayed 11K likes, we recorded that as 11,000.