The Male Echo Chamber of Political Twitter

The men who cover Washington’s politics have a greater audience than their female peers, and largely use that audience to talk to, and amplify the voices of, other men.

The Twitter logo behind a U.S. flag
Lucas Jackson / Reuters

In 1992, Nan Robertson, a Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter for The New York Times, published The Girls in the Balcony, a book about the myriad ways in which women journalists at the Times were marginalized during the 1970s. The book’s title was no metaphor. It referenced the cramped balcony of the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., to which women reporters were relegated while presidents addressed their male colleagues in the ballroom below. It was also likely a rejoinder to Timothy Crouse’s The Boys on the Bus, whose very title enshrined the male dominance of 1970s political reporting.

In some ways, Robertson’s book became part of its own narrative. Despite glowing reviews, it is far less famous than Crouse’s tome, even to people in journalism circles. Nikki Usher, who wrote an entire book about the Times, didn’t hear about it until recently. “I was shocked that I didn’t know about it,” she told me.

The balcony that Robertson wrote about still exists. And, if anything, it is even smaller and higher for women of color, or for reporters who fall outside the usual gender binary. And Usher, a journalism professor at George Washington University, has just published a new study on the gender disparity, which now exists with a modern twist. She has shown that male Beltway journalists—those who live in the Washington area and cover its politics—have a greater audience on Twitter than their female peers. And they largely use that audience to talk to, and amplify the voices of, other men.

Her results, which were first reported by Laura McGann at Vox, reflected what many women in journalism have personally experienced. “Female political journalists didn’t need a study to know this but here it is,” tweeted Clara Jeffery, the editor in chief of Mother Jones. “Journalist twitter is a kickstand party,” noted Lydia Polgreen, the editor in chief of the Huffington Post.

Still, the scale of the disparity Usher found surprised her. “We couldn’t believe what we saw,” she said. “We thought we had made a mistake.”

Usher and her colleagues analyzed the Twitter accounts of 2,292 Beltway journalists with congressional credentials, and analyzed their tweets from June and July 2017. The men not only outnumbered their female colleagues by 57 percent to 43 percent, but had amassed roughly twice as many followers.

They were also more likely to engage with each other. Usher found that when male Beltway journalists reply to other Beltway journalists, the recipient is male 92 percent of the time. When they retweet other Beltway journalists, the beneficiary is male 74 percent of the time. Women show a different pattern: To a lesser extent, they’re more likely to reply to other women (72 percent of the time), but they’re still more likely to retweet men (60 percent of the time). “Women are doing a good job of building their own communities, but these aren’t breaking through to the rest of Twitter,” Usher said.

These disparities compound each other and perpetuate themselves, creating a network in which men disproportionately promote each other to their already inflated numbers of followers. “The more male voices we hear or see or read, the more likely those voices are to rise to prominence,” says Francesca Donner, who directs The New York Times’ gender initiative. “The more prominent they are, the more likely they are to be quoted or retweeted. And so it goes.” It’s hardly surprising that when Usher compiled lists of the most influential Beltway journalists on Twitter according to various metrics, women rarely featured in the top 25, and almost never broke into the top 10.

Why do these disparities exist? Partly, it’s because men tweet more in the first place, sending out, on average, 38 percent more unprompted tweets than women per account. But quantity doesn’t mean quality. Usher noted that women may simply have less time for tweeting, given the emotional labor that they perform both at work and at home. “Twitter is also a very toxic platform for women,” she added. Why spend time in a place where even innocuous interactions are subject to grotesque harassment and patronizing attitudes?

Skeptics might ask: So what? After all, this study only looked at a very specific set of reporters, in one beat, in one location, on one platform. But that denies the disproportionate powers and responsibilities of those reporters, in that beat, in that place, on that platform. “Political journalists shape the dialogue of national news, and their engagement with each other shapes all of that,” Usher said. “Beltway Twitter is deeply insular, but that insularity has a global reach.”

Twitter acts as a collective front page where new stories are broken, and a watering hole where journalists congregate. Replies and retweets are transactions through which power is conferred. They shape who we think of as an expert. They surface names to the collective consciousness—names that come to mind during recruitment drives or commissioning decisions.

“In many studies, Twitter isn’t a fair representation of the real world,” Usher said. “But in the Beltway, political Twitter is an omnipresent fact of your physical life. You’re checking Twitter in your office and then at dinner. These are the people you’re working with and having dinner with, whom you’re systematically marginalizing because of their gender.” As my colleague Adrienne LaFrance told me, “These findings are fascinating to me—in part because of how much they reflect the experience of professional socializing offline. This is not just about Twitter.”

In newsrooms, gender disparities are omnipresent. Men are paid more, deliver more TV reports, spend more time on camera, write more op-eds and reviews, and are quoted more often than women.

Female journalists also have to deal with sexual harassment from male peers, as evidenced by the number of high-profile names who have been fired from their jobs after accusations levied as part of the #MeToo movement.

“If [newsroom] dynamics are sharply gendered, think about what that does to the coverage, and to the way that women and women’s issues are covered,” Usher said. Consider how the men implicated in #MeToo not only shaped the lives of their female colleagues, but also the national narrative around women more generally—including Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. “When the harassers are men with loud microphones, their private misogyny has wide-reaching public consequence,” wrote Jill Filipovic in the Times.

This is a crucial point, which elevates the implications of Usher’s study beyond the navel-gazing insularity of Twitter. Journalists are gatekeepers. Our choices affect which stories get told, whose voices get heard, and how national narratives are shaped. We chronicle the world, but in doing so, we also create it. And so aiming for diversity and equity in the voices we amplify is not an empty act of virtue signaling; it is also a path to better journalism. If the job is to report on the world, it makes little sense to sideline significant proportions of it.

This is not a difficult problem to fix. Two years ago, inspired by LaFrance, I analyzed the gender of the sources in my stories, and realized that I quoted three times as many men as women. Through regular tracking and active effort, I have since rectified that imbalance, and others have done similar exercises. Several databases of female sources exist, and there are many lists of women journalists on Twitter to follow.

“A lot of it has to do with being conscious about whose voices you’re promoting, and perhaps even overcorrecting given the structural inequities,” Usher said. “If you care about this, do something about it. I’ve had two emails from men [named in my study] asking if they could look at their own data more closely. I was hoping to get more.”

“Unless you’re looking for balance, you are likely to not notice the lack of it,” says Elisa Lees Muñoz, the executive director of the International Women’s Media Foundation. Last month, on World Press Freedom Day, her organization launched a campaign to encourage journalists to notice the gender balance of their news feeds. “We asked people to be aware, to just take one day and spend it counting,” she says. “We need to be consciously part of the solution.”