Accuracy in Media

In 1969, a few days after President Richard Nixon broached a new Vietnam policy that journalists criticized in real time, Vice President Spiro Agnew ventured to Iowa to defend Nixon.

In a speech, Agnew denounced TV-news decision-makers as a “tiny, enclosed fraternity of privileged men elected by no one and enjoying a monopoly sanctioned and licensed by government.” Their views, he insisted, “do not — and I repeat, not — represent the views of America.”

Thus, conservatives first began spotlighting media “bias.”

That “fraternity” is now co-ed and more decentralized, yet it is just as insulated as what Agnew criticized. A new University of Illinois study helps illustrate.

Using Twitter as a “virtual water cooler” where reporters freely exchanged insights, journalism professors Nikki Usher and Yee Man Margaret Ng analyzed 133,529 tweets made over two months in 2018 by 2,015 Washington reporters who had credentials to cover Congress.

Their conclusion: These elite journalists — D.C. journalists have more clout and are paid more than any in America — exist in “microbubbles,” in which they narrowly “communicate more among themselves than with journalists outside the group.” 

Usher and Ng divided reporters into nine “communities of practice.” or CoPs. For instance, the largest cluster was dubbed “large elite/legacy,” and featured those from outlets like The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR, Politico and NBC News. They named another “CNN” because more than half its members worked for CNN. A third was populated by television producers.

The purpose was to determine how “political journalists make sense of what news to cover and how to cover it” by studying the words they tweet, the hashtags they promote, the issues and people they discuss and their biographies.

“In short,” they wrote, “the Beltway’s ‘media bubble’ looks more like a collection of ‘micro bubbles,’ suggesting Beltway journalism may be even more insular than previously thought.”

For example, they noted 68 percent of Twitter interactions among reporters in the “large elite/legacy” cluster were with each other. 

This “clubby insularity” serves to “drive each other’s agendas as well as the public’s,” Usher and Ng wrote. Which is concerning since “Washington political journalists still have outsized power, status, and influence in shaping what the public knows about politics.” 

“The dangers of journalists having limited perspectives are real,” the professors warned.

That’s because the “siloed communities” among these Beltway elites are vulnerable to “blind spots,” as well as “groupthink, insularity, the silencing of divergent perspectives, and limitations in knowledge product.”

Donald Trump’s election demonstrates this. “Journalists widely predicted that Hillary Clinton would win the 2016 election,” the study notes, largely because “journalists on Twitter had almost no exposure to Trump supporters.”

The upshot: “It is important to consider what happens when journalists are dancing with other journalists, who they pick as partners, and the songs they dance to.” 

In an interview, Usher suggested the Beltway media’s inability to look outside their cliques has “deleterious effects for public discourse.”

Agnew diagnosed this 51 years ago. 

“Perhaps,” he concluded in that Iowa speech, “the place to start looking for a credibility gap is not in the offices of the government in Washington but in the studios of the networks in New York.”

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