How Has News Changed Over the Past 30 Years?

A 28-year analysis shows that reporting has become more subjective since 1989.

Posted May 14, 2019

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Source: Pixabay

Over the past 30 years, journalism in the United States has gradually shifted towards more opinion-based content that appeals to people's emotions and relies heavily on argumentation and less on objective news coverage, according to a new RAND Corporation report.

The latest RAND Corp. report, "News in a Digital Age: Comparing the Presentation of News Information over Time and Across Media Platforms," was published May 14, 2019. This report is the second in a series on the topic of "Truth Decay," which is defined by RAND as "the diminishing role that facts, data, and analysis play in today's political and civil discourse."

Senior political scientist and lead author of this new paper, Jennifer Kavanagh, and colleagues found that the media ecosystem in the U.S. has experienced a rapid technological evolution over the past three decades. These digital-age changes have revolutionized how news content is produced, consumed, and disseminated via smartphones and other electronic devices. 

For this report, Kavanagh and her co-authors used a powerful big data text-analysis tool called "RAND-Lex" to analyze content from newspapers, television, and online media outlets. Their objective was to gauge how the presentation of news information—based on journalism style and linguistic characteristics—has changed over a 28-year-period (1989 to 2017). During this period, digital news outlets, 24-hour cable news channels, and other news platforms made countless hometown newspapers dedicated to shoe-leather reporting obsolete.

RAND-Lex was used to analyze millions of lines of text from 15 news outlets representing print journalism (The New York Times, Washington Post and St. Louis Post-Dispatch), television (CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN, Fox and MSNBC) and digital journalism (Politico, The Blaze, Breitbart News Network, Buzzfeed Politics, The Daily Caller and The Huffington Post).

Although there was an uptick in subjective reportage, it's important to note that the latest RAND report found that U.S. journalism has not entirely shifted away from "Walter Cronkite-style serious reporting to fiction or propaganda." Even in the most significant contrasts between objective and subjective news coverage, Kavanagh et al. found a great deal of similarity between professional journalism standards "then" (1989) and now across multiple news platforms.

The first report in this series, "Truth Decay: An Initial Exploration of the Diminishing Role of Facts and Analysis in American Public Life," was written by Jennifer Kavanagh and RAND President and CEO Michael D. Rich and published on January 16, 2018.

The original Truth Decay report (2018) identified four interconnected trends: (1) increasing disagreement about facts and analytical interpretations of facts and data, (2) a blurring between opinion and fact, (3) an increase in the relative volume of opinion and personal experience over fact, and (4) declining trust in formerly respected sources of factual information. (See, "Why Have So Many Americans Lost Their Trust in Facts?")

Three Takeaways from RAND's 2019 Analysis of News in a Digital Age 

  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.
  2. When comparing prime-time cable programming with broadcast television, there were significant differences in how the news was presented.
  3. "Old media" is more grounded in traditional reporting. "New media" tends to lean more subjective.

"Our research provides quantitative evidence for what we all can see in the media landscape: Journalism in the U.S. has become more subjective and consists less of the detailed event- or context-based reporting that used to characterize news coverage," Kavanagh said in a press release. "News consumers can now see how the news has changed over the years and keep that in mind when making choices about which media outlets to rely on for news." 

Before the substantial decrease in viewership of news programming on all three major networks (ABC, NBC, CBS) around the year 2000, broadcast news—which often includes precise and academic language—was where most Americans got their evening news. However, around the turn of this century, cable news—which relies more on talking-head conversations about breaking news and politically partisan on-air personalities—began to take center stage as part of a 24-hour news cycle.

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Source: Pixabay

The latest RAND report found the starkest contrast in journalism styles between traditional broadcast news and cable news programming. Cable news segments dedicate much more time to opinion-based news coverage and often include argumentative language. The researchers speculate that these differences may be driven in part by the dramatically different viewer demographics between partisan cable news channels that gear their programming towards Republican or Democrat audiences.

When comparing newspaper journalism to digital news outlets, the researchers found that digital journalism tends to be more personal and direct. Online reporting often focused on narrating critical social and policy issues through the lens of subjective references and personal points of view.

According to this report, traditional newspapers have changed the least since the late 1980s. However, the content in most newspapers did shift slightly from a dry, academic style of writing to a more narrative style.

"Our analysis illustrates that news sources are not interchangeable, but each provides mostly unique content, even when reporting on related issues," Bill Marcellino, who is a behavioral and social scientist and co-author of the report, said in a press release. "Given our findings that different types of media present news in different ways, it makes sense that people turn to multiple platforms."

Last year, after the publication of the first Truth Decay report, Michael Rich said in a statement, "We urge individuals and organizations to join with us in promoting the need for facts, data and analysis in civic and political discourse—and in American public life. The challenge posed by Truth Decay is great, but the stakes are too high to permit inaction."

This year, Rich said in a statement, "RAND has always been an institution where facts matter. This new stream of research sheds additional light on the drivers and implications of Truth Decay and is part of our continuing efforts to use analysis to improve civil discourse and public policymaking."

According to a RAND press release: "Forthcoming [Truth Decay] reports will examine issues such as online civic engagement and the use of social media for political activities, public trust in institutions, and how to evaluate media literacy programs."

References

Jennifer Kavanagh, William Marcellino, Jonathan S. Blake, Shawn Smith, Steven Davenport, and Mahlet G. Tebeka. “News in a Digital Age: Comparing the Presentation of News Information over Time and Across Media Platforms." Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation. (First published: May 14, 2019)  DOI: 10.7249/RR2960

Jennifer Kavanagh and Michael D. Rich. "Truth Decay: An Initial Exploration of the Diminishing Role of Facts and Analysis in American Public Life." Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation. (First published: January 16, 2018) DOI: 10.7249/RR2314

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