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This report provides a quantitative analysis of how news presentation has evolved over the last 30 years and how it differs across platforms. Using RAND-Lex, a suite of tools that combines machine learning and text analysis, the researchers compared 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 from 2000 to 2017, and newspapers and online journalism.

As society shifted from “old” to “new” media, news content shifted from more objective event- and context-based reporting to more subjective reporting that relies more heavily on argumentation and advocacy, and includes more emotional appeals. These shifts were seen across platforms, with print journalism evolving the least and broadcast news comparing to prime-time cable programming and print journalism comparing to online journalism.

The report quantifies the sizes of observed changes and illustrates how these changes appear in context. It also discusses the implications of these trends for the evolving media ecosystem and Truth Decay, a term coined by RAND to describe the diminishing role of facts and analysis in political discourse.

Important Findings

Print journalism has shifted slightly toward more subjective reporting.

Print reporting in the pre-2000 period was characterized by context- and event-based reporting, reliance on directives, and the use of titles and official positions. Many of these linguistic characteristics were frequently used in tandem

The post-2000 sample revealed a significant shift away from such language and toward unpacking social and policy issues through character-centered stories, such as discussing homelessness through homeless children.

Subjectivity, conversation, and argument have become more prominent in television news

Television news, like print journalism, has evolved from objective reporting that dealt with complex issues and grounded news in abstract concepts and values of shared public concerns to a more subjective, conversational, argumentative style of news presentation.

When comparing broadcast news to prime-time cable programming after 2000, the difference is even more pronounced, 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 hosted by pundits rather than news reporting-based programs, which may skew the comparison.

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