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How Journalists Congregating Into 'Microbubbles' Affects Quality Of News Reporting


By the fall of 2016, the mainstream news world had made up its mind.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Hillary Clinton now well in excess of what she needs to win.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Ohio goes to Trump, but Clinton sweeps the rest of the battleground...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: The Moody's model is predicting that Hillary Clinton will take the key swing states of Florida, Ohio, Colorado and Pennsylvania.

KELLY: Well, we all know what happened next, which caused a lot of soul-searching among journalists, all of us asking, how did we get this so wrong? Well, some blamed the so-called media bubble, saying it caused blind spots and groupthink. Now as we, of course, near another presidential election, researchers have analyzed the interactions of journalists on Twitter, and they say political journalists are even more siloed and insular today. Well, Nikki Usher is one of the authors of that work. She joins me now.


NIKKI USHER: Hi. Thank you so much for having me.

KELLY: So we all - we've all heard about the media bubble. It's a well-known phenomenon. But what did your analysis of Twitter tell us that we didn't already know?

USHER: So we know it's insular. Lots of previous research has established this. But it's not a monolith. They're actually a smaller sub-silos of journalists that talk to each other more than anybody else within this larger Beltway. And that leads to even greater concerns from the part of researchers in terms of groupthink and siloing.

KELLY: Microbubbles, you call them. What's an example? Who's in it?

USHER: NPR - might as well start with that - you are in the elite/legacy bubble that we so called because it had The Washington Post and NPR and The New York Times in it. And in this elite bubble, about 68% of the Twitter interactions in Beltway journalism are in this elite bubble.

KELLY: Sixty-eight percent? That's an incredible number.

USHER: Yeah, 68% of tweets between journalists who work at The Washington Post, NPR, New York Times - a little bit less so Politico, NBC - are to each other, yes.

KELLY: And just to be clear on exactly what your methodology is, you were studying Washington reporters, the National Press Corps based in D.C. and specifically people who are - had congressional press passes. Is that right? That was the subset you were looking at?

USHER: Yeah. So we took the list of about almost 6,000 credentialed congressional journalists and went through it looking for English - those who were working for English-speaking outlets - and came up with about 2,506 credentialed journalists who had active Twitter accounts.

KELLY: I mean, it paints a picture of total a echo chamber and groupthink, as you say. But, I mean, what do you see as the impact on the quality of news being reported?

USHER: I mean, it has a watercooler effect, but that watercooler effect is really compounded by the fact that journalists are trying to make decisions quickly. And so those microbubbles become increasingly important in sounding out what the news of the day is and what the take is. The good news is, actually, anybody can watch this happening if they follow journalists on Twitter. The bad news is that this can lead to a lot of group-thinking consensus.

KELLY: So any advice for journalists based on your research to do better?

USHER: My suggestion would be to work with the local media that do exist because there is a lot of strong community media that does have a very good understanding of what's on the ground. So you might pick up different trends by working closely. And I know NPR has a great network forming of journalism throughout the country with other public radio, and I think that that's a great move in the right direction to network resources to get a better pulse on what's going on.

KELLY: We do indeed, and we're proud of it. And we thank you for the plug. That's Nikki Usher, journalism professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. Her work appears in the journal Social Media and Society.

Nikki Usher, thank you.

USHER: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.