Journalism in the US has been found to be less objective and more opinion-based than in the past, confirming concerns surrounding the rise of so-called post-truth news, thanks to an analytics tool previously used to identify social media discussion of Islamic terrorism.

The exhaustive RAND Corporation report used a text analytics tool known as RAND-Lex to look at millions of lines of text across print, online and broadcast journalism between 1989 and 2017.

Focusing on patterns of usage in both words and phrases, researchers used the tool to look both at changes within individual media types and differences between different formats.

They found what many have suspected: fact-based reporting has declined across the board in favour of subjectivity, although the changes are starker in some formats compared to others.

“Our research provides quantitative evidence for what we all can see in the media landscape: journalism in the US has become more subjective and consists less of the detailed event or context-based reporting that used to characterise news coverage,” said study lead author and senior political scientist Jennifer Kavanagh.

Post-truth news is real, but not all platforms are the same

The RAND-Lex tool, which previously has been used to determine both support and opposition to Islamic terrorism on social media platforms, showed that while all media formats have seen a shift to subjectivity, not all have seen the same level of change.

Newspapers have shown the least change, moving from a style RAND describes as “academic” to a more narrative-based approach.

Online content, meanwhile, is often far more subjective, focusing on personal points of view and selective examples to bring colour to both political and social issues.

There have been changes too in television-based platforms.

Broadcast news saw the biggest change after 2000, when major US cable networks saw a dramatic upswing in viewers. In an apparent attempt to compete, broadcast news shifted from using highly precise language to a more relaxed approach involving more on-air guests and conversational segments.

Cable programming, meanwhile, focus far more on opinion, with a greater use of language RAND describes as “argumentative”.

“Our analysis illustrates that news sources are not interchangeable but each provides mostly unique content, even when reporting on related issues,” said report co-author and behavioural and social scientist Bill Marcellino.

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“Given our findings that different types of media present news in different ways, it makes sense that people turn to multiple platforms.”

The report saw RAND cover a wide-variety of high-profile media outlets. These included three print outlets, The New York Times, Washington Post and St Louis Post-Dispatch, six television outlets, CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN, Fox and MSNBC, and six online outlets, Politico, The Blaze, Breitbart News Network, Buzzfeed Politics, The Daily Caller and The Huffington Post.

It is hoped that the findings will help people make informed choices when it comes consuming news in the ‘fake news’ era.

“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,” said Kavanagh.


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