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May 14, 2019

RAND's Analysis of News in the Digital Age: Three Takeaways

Photo by sam thomas/Getty Images

Americans no longer have to wait for the morning paper or the evening news to learn what's going on in the world. Many simply grab their phones and start scrolling.

Clearly, the rise of digital technology has transformed how we consume information. But how has it shaped the way that news is presented?

RAND researchers explored this question in an empirical study published today. It's part of RAND's ongoing examination of “Truth Decay,” the diminishing role of facts and analysis in American public life.

Here are three key takeaways:

  1. Print journalism and reporting on broadcast television have been mostly consistent in tone and style over the last 30 years. But since 2000, there's been a gradual shift toward more-subjective reporting.

    Newspaper stories before 2000 used language that was heavily event- and context-based; contained more references to time, official titles, positions, and institutions; and used descriptive language to provide details. After 2000, there was a gradual shift toward using more storytelling techniques, and a greater emphasis on interactions, personal perspective, and emotion. (An in-depth profile story, for example, lays out the day-to-day life of someone whose circumstances illustrate a pressing public issue, rather than just delivering the facts.)

    Broadcast television has shifted in a similar way. Nightly news programs have historically used precise and concrete language and turned toward public sources of authority (e.g., CDC, the World Bank) for reporting. But after 2000, opinions, interviews, and arguments became more common.

  2. When comparing prime-time cable programming with broadcast television, there were significant differences in how the news was presented.

    Our researchers analyzed prime-time news programming on cable outlets compared with broadcast television news—specifically, nightly news from the three major U.S. networks—over the time period of 2000 to 2017. They found that cable news featured content that was more subjective, abstract, argumentative, and based on opinion rather than on reporting events. This was a stark contrast to the tone of broadcast television news.

    This difference can partly be explained by the business models and objectives of both types of programming. Prime-time cable programming might be different, for example, because it targets a more niche audience and aims to maximize viewers and, by extension, profits.

  3. “Old media” is more grounded in traditional reporting. “New media” tends to lean more subjective.

    Through 2017 (the last year the researchers examined in this study) newspapers have remained anchored in traditional reporting techniques. These include strong use of characters, time, descriptive and concrete language, numbers, and retrospective reasoning.

    But online media outlets tend to deviate from this model, using more conversational language and putting more emphasis on interpersonal interactions and individual perspectives and opinions. Additionally, the tone in online media is often more argumentative and aims to persuade readers.

These findings provide quantitative evidence for what Americans see every day when they open a newspaper, turn on the television, or click on a headline. Overall, opinion and subjectivity is used more widely in news today than in the past. This shift was apparent across all the platforms examined—print journalism, television news, and online reporting—although less so in newspapers.

But according to the analysis, news reporting has not shifted from “Walter Cronkite-style serious reporting to fiction or propaganda.” Even in the biggest contrasts that the researchers found, there was still a great deal of similarity over time and across platforms.

To identify and measure these long-term changes in reporting, the researchers used a powerful text-analysis tool called RAND-Lex. This allowed them to analyze millions of words from newspapers, television, and online media outlets that spanned decades.[1]

To learn more, check out the full report, News in a Digital Age, or this research brief.

And look out for more RAND research on Truth Decay in the coming months.

— Deanna Lee

Footnotes

  1. For more on the researchers' methodology, see Chapter Two in the full report. Return to content