The DC Coverage Bubble Will Pull You In and Not Let Go

Nikki Usher with a reality check.

“There’s a fundamental problem, though, with asking journalists—or anyone—to respond to critiques that question the work they do,” writes Nikki Usher for CJR. “And in social science, there’s a methodological problem too, a ‘self-report bias’ that makes it hard for people to accurately assess what they do as opposed to what they say they do.”

This idea explains the disconnect Usher found when she set out to illustrate the point of a December Pew Research Center report on the D.C. press corps.

On the one hand, there was a report positing that D.C. based reporters from local and regional papers were less likely to explain to readers how the workings of Washington impacted their own cities and towns.

On the other, there were the reporters Usher interviewed, who disagreed with the very premise that taking an inside baseball approach was less than beneficial:

DC correspondents don’t see it this way. Surprisingly, they make an argument that Beltway-focused coverage is actually advantageous and useful to local communities—even if a personality-driven story might not say much about how a federal decision impacts readers back home.

Here is what one D.C. correspondent, Jessica Wehrman, told Usher: “On a basic level, it’s what is their lawmaker like, is he or she a backslapper, a deal maker, averse to the process of new laws?”

But if the public doesn’t have a good grasp of what those laws are, what does it matter to know how their rep deals?

Perhaps Washington is less a bubble than a black hole. A matter-grabbing mass that sucks you in to its dark, dense world, where everyone has forgotten what they came for, swayed instead by the drama of power and personality, convinced this is what matters most. Maybe staying an outsider is the best way to explain what’s really going on inside.