Prescription for journalists from journalists: Less time studying Twitter, more time studying math

You hear a lot of heated claims and baseless generalities these days about what’s wrong with the news media.

What’s seldom heard is what the underlying data indicate about true problem areas and where journalists need to improve.

News reporting requires doing a lot things well, but two crucial elements are being independent of political (or other) interests and knowing one’s subject well enough to select what’s important for the public.

I am a media scholar and former journalist. In my research for my book “The Social Fact: News and Knowledge in a Networked World,” I tried to quantify certain aspects of these two dimensions of news media.

While the overall evidence shows journalists to be ethical in their practice and fair and public-spirited in their mission, I found some troubling signs in my research.

Partisanship

The first question I looked at was whether journalists were partisan. That would affect their stories by making them biased and therefore less trustworthy.

Research in general continues to show news media have left- and right-leaning partisan slants, although the degree depends on the outlet and subject in question.

But one novel aspect to consider in our hyper-polarized, social media-driven age is the relationship between journalists’ work and their online social networks, in particular Twitter, where reporters and editors spend a lot of time these days.

Is partisanship visible not just in the reporting of stories, but elsewhere, in the social networks that journalists inhabit?

As part of a 2018 study with my colleagues Kenny Joseph of the University at Buffalo, SUNY, and David Lazer at Northeastern University, we analyzed partisanship across more than 300,000 news articles produced by 644 journalists at 25 different U.S. news outlets.

We did this using algorithms that helped us sort and analyze each article and journalist, from more conservative outlets such as The Wall Street Journal and National Review to more liberal ones such as The New Yorker and The New York Times.

We looked at the frequency with which key political terms were used, such as “LGBT,” “equal pay,” and “Voting Rights Act” for left-leaning persons, and “bureaucrats,” “illegal immigrants” and “sponsor of terrorism” for right-leaning persons.

We then compared this analysis with a careful look at the individual journalists’ social networks on Twitter – which accounts they follow, and the degree of partisanship of these accounts.