New research provides evidence that Beltway journalists have formed insular subcommunities on Twitter, raising concerns about their ability to generate information for the public. The study, published in the journal Social Media + Society, used an inductive computational analysis to identify several “microbubbles” in the journalism community.
“I worry about the blindspots of national political media. We have seen how blind spots can impact news judgment; in 2016, Hillary Clinton was widely assumed to win the election by a wide margin, and clearly she did not,” said study author Nikki Usher (@nikkiusher), an associate professor at the University of Illinois’ College of Media.
“The fact that national news media missed the upwelling of populism in the US signals a huge reason to be concerned about groupthink, sourcing, geographic isolation, and blind spots that emerge within an insular community.”
Usher and her colleague collected 680,021 tweets from 2,292 credentialed congressional correspondents that were sent between February 1 and March 31, 2018. The researchers then examined only tweets where a correspondent directly referenced another member of the sample. The final data set consisted of 133,529 Twitter posts, meaning about one fifth of the tweets were interactions with other Beltway journalists.
“Blind spots and insular thinking are part and parcel of any tightly knit community. The ‘Beltway bubble’ is real, and this study helps show that journalists rely on other journalists to make assessments about the importance of events of the day and plan news coverage. This presents a problem to us all because the news media, especially the national news media, has tremendous capacity to shape how we understand the world; its blindspots are our blind spots,” Usher told PsyPost.
The researchers applied a “community detection” algorithm to find clusters of journalists based on their Twitter interactions. They identified nine major clusters:
- The elite/legacy community: journalists from national news brands such as The Washington Post, NPR, and The New York Times.
- The congressional journalism community: journalists from outlets such as Bloomberg, Politico, and the Associated Press who focus on covering Congress.
- CNN: journalists at the network showed a “preoccupation with organizational branding.”
- Television producers: TV staffers from outlets such as ABC News, Fox News, and CBS News.
- The longform/enterprise community: journalists focused on investigative reporting.
- The local D.C. news community: “a community of Washington journalists within the larger Washington political journalism Beltway.”
- Specialty news: journalists who covered topics such as regulations, social issues, and foreign affairs.
The elite/legacy cluster was among the most insular, with more than 68% of the cluster members’ Twitter interactions being with other journalists within the cluster. “That also may mean they’re not engaging, in the same kind of way, with the people who are actually on the ground getting these sorts of congressional microscoops, they’re not engaging with the journalists who are the policy wonks,” Usher said in a news release.
The CNN cluster was also highly self-referential and insular. “In particular, it is concerning that CNN journalists are tweeting mostly to other CNN journalists about CNN. Even if this is an organizational mandate, it nonetheless serves as a powerful echo chamber that leaves CNN’s internal sense about what news matters unchecked and reconfirmed by those who work there,” the researchers wrote in their study.
But there is still much to learn about how the clusters impact journalistic content.
“Before presuming too much, we did not look at the ideological makeup of the journalists and we did not look at the content produced in tandem with the tweets. To really assess whether the bubbles impact coverage, more direct assessment between what was said on Twitter and how stories themselves appeared in the news would be required. Also, for national political journalists, Twitter is an extension of real life, but that’s not true for most populations,” Usher explained.
“We need to push our news media, especially national political news media, to be more aware of the concerns of people outside the beltway. As local news declines, national news media are likely to step in to fill the gaps, but they need broader inputs to make judgements about what matters and how to cover stories in ways that are authentic to the needs and concerns of Americans.”
The study, “Sharing Knowledge and “Microbubbles”: Epistemic Communities and Insularity in US Political Journalism“, was Nikki Usher and Yee Man Margaret Ng.