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Research Questions

  1. In what measurable ways did the style of news presentation in print journalism change between 1989 and 2017?
  2. In what measurable ways did the style of news presentation in broadcast journalism change between 1989 and 2017?
  3. How does the style of news presentation in broadcast journalism differ from the style used in prime-time cable programming over the 2000–2017 period?
  4. How does the style of news presentation in online journalism differ from that of print journalism over the 2012–2017 period?
  5. What are the implications of these changes for Truth Decay?

This report presents a quantitative assessment of how the presentation of news has changed over the past 30 years and how it varies across platforms. Using RAND-Lex, a suite of tools that combine machine learning and text analysis, the researchers considered such linguistic characteristics as social attitude, sentiment, affect, subjectivity, and relation with authority for four comparisons: newspapers before and after 2000 (through 2017), broadcast television news before and after 2000 (through 2000), broadcast news and prime-time cable programming for the period from 2000 to 2017, and newspapers and online journalism during the 2012–2017 period. Over time, and as society moved from "old" to "new" media, news content has generally shifted from more-objective event- and context-based reporting to reporting that is more subjective, relies more heavily on argumentation and advocacy, and includes more emotional appeals. These changes were observed across platforms, appearing least significant in the evolution of print journalism and most stark in comparisons of broadcast news with prime-time cable programming and of print journalism with online journalism. The report quantifies the sizes of observed changes and provides examples of what these changes look like in context. It also includes a discussion of the implications of these trends for the changing media ecosystem and for Truth Decay—the term RAND uses to refer to the diminishing role of facts and analysis in political discourse.

Key Findings

Print journalism has made modest shifts toward more-subjective reporting

  • Typical characteristics of print reporting in the pre-2000 period were context- and event-based reporting, reliance on directives, and use of titles and official positions. Many of these linguistic features were frequently used together.
  • The post-2000 sample showed a meaningful shift away from such language and toward unpacking social and policy issues through character-centered stories, such as homeless children as a way to discuss homelessness.

Television news has made stronger shifts to subjectivity, conversation, and argument

  • Similar to print journalism, television news has shifted from straight reporting that dealt with complex issues and grounded news in the abstract concepts and values of shared public matters to a more subjective, conversational, argumentative style of news presentation.
  • When comparing broadcast news with prime-time cable programming in the period after 2000, an even more dramatic difference is apparent, with prime-time cable programming being more subjective, abstract, and directive. However, prime-time programs on cable news channels tend to be opinion-based shows led by pundits, not news reporting-based programs, which could influence the comparison.

Online journalism features a subjective kind of advocacy

  • Online journalism is more personal and direct than print journalism, narrating key social and policy issues through very personal frames and subjective references.

This research presents key insights for Truth Decay

  • There does seem to be evidence of a growing use of opinion and subjectivity in the presentation of news. However, the results of this study are not necessarily generalizable. Also, some of the effect sizes are relatively small, and changes observed over time and differences across platforms are subtle in many cases.
  • Changes in news presentation identified in this report are relevant to individual news consumer decisions about which media organizations to use and which to trust; trends toward subjective journalism might reduce that trust.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    Introduction

  • Chapter Two

    Data and Methodology

  • Chapter Three

    Changes in Newspaper Reporting over Time

  • Chapter Four

    Differences in Television News

  • Chapter Five

    Comparing Print and Online Journalism

  • Chapter Six

    Summary and Conclusions

  • Appendix A

    About RAND-Lex

  • Appendix B

    Graphs from Subsample Analyses

  • Appendix C

    ANOVA Results

This project is a RAND Venture. Funding was provided by gifts from RAND supporters and income from operations.

This report is part of the RAND Corporation research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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