Political journalists' dependence on Twitter makes coverage weaker

Ignoring other platforms comes at a reporters' own peril

Political journalists' dependence on Twitter makes coverage weaker
(Flickr Commons / Spencer E Holtaway)

I won’t argue that political reporters shouldn’t pay attention to Twitter, as some in the “Twitter is not real life” crowd may be tempted to state. Rather, allow me to suggest this: Twitter is important for political reporters. Other platforms are, too.

Twitter is real life for the people who use it as much as any other platform in our modern lives can be. We encounter things on social platforms that shape our beliefs, inform our decisions, and otherwise define our relationships to world around us. Hell, the very business models of major platforms are to sell information about us to companies and campaigns that hope to provoke us into doing “real life” things, like purchasing products or casting votes.

According to a 2019 Pew Research Center survey, just 22% of adults in the U.S. said they use the platform; respondents in the same survey answered that they use YouTube and Facebook at rates of 73% and 69%, respectively. That year, more adults said they use Snapchat (24%) than Twitter. The platform’s user base skews younger, wealthier, and more educated than the general public, the survey found, and a majority of content on the site (80%) was generated by a minority of users (10%).

Boil that down and you wind up with a rather small amount of voices participating in discourse on a platform that political journalists just can’t seem to log off of. Unfortunately, that kind of limited input is nothing new for national-level political reporting in the United States. Heavy dependence on Twitter makes the trap exceedingly convenient to fall into.

By the numbers produced in Pew’s survey, one would think that political reporters could better prioritize their time looking at Facebook or YouTube to understand voters’ sentiments on the issues at hand. I find it hard to disagree. And while there are certainly many reporters doing impressive work on non-Twitter platforms, their is sadly not reflected in top-level political coverage at major news outlets.

Reporters grappling with non-Twitter platforms are often working under tech verticals, rather than political ones, and their stories are sold as ones about social media companies rather than the political arena in general. This is the result of high-level editorial decisions that indicate fundamental misunderstandings about the modern world at the top of publication mastheads.

A single Tweet from a political figure can inspire a wave of news articles in a way that an appearance on a YouTube show could never. Savvy political influencers know this dynamic well. Their tweets are meant for the press and right-wing news audiences, but the real money gets spent targeting users on platforms like Facebook. They know what matters, and where. And adding to that, whole movements now exist on alternative platforms like Telegram, reaching hundreds of thousands in a completely alternate and insulated digital universe.

It’s not that Twitter is necessarily bad for journalists, it’s that Twitter is only a small slice of the bigger picture. I’ll be the first to tell you that I’ve used the platform to my advantage. Over the years, I’ve used it to connect with sources, maintain tabs on the folks I’m interested in tracking, and build up an audience for my research and reporting. Simply put: Twitter is convenient and has aided my career.

But it’s past time for more platform diversity in political reporters’ diets. Without it, they risk developing a type of tunnel vision that will almost certainly limit their understandings of political issues, and that has consequences for the rest of us.

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