When researchers analyzed nearly 6,000 political news articles produced by partisan and nonpartisan media in 2021, they found three things:
- Extremely biased news outlets, whether conservative or liberal biased, tended to use shorter sentences and less formal language than nonpartisan news outlets.
- Mainstream news organizations, as a whole, write at higher reading levels. For example, the Reuters article is written at the level of someone who, on average, completed her year and a half of college. Meanwhile, Wonkette, a far-left online publication, wrote on average at her 9th grade reading level. American Thinker, a far-right online publication, wrote at the 11th grade level.
- Far-right and far-left outlets took on a more negative tone than nonpartisan outlets. They generally had a low ratio of positive to negative words.
The researchers describe their findings in a paper, “At the Extremes: Assessing Readability, Grade Level, Sentiment, and Tone in US Media Outlets,” to be published in Journalism Studies.
Although the findings apply only to the 20 media outlets surveyed, it is important to understand how these outlets differ and how some viewers often fail to adhere to the ethics and norms of professional journalism, often partisan. Provides insight into why they seek information from the media.
Journalist-turned-researcher Jessica F. Sparks, lead author of the paper, says people generally prefer simpler, easier-to-understand language. “Bipartisan” outlets use language that is understood by a large portion of the population. It also presents problems and events in simpler terms. They often omit important facts or background, especially when one party benefits another, Sparks points out.
“As humans, we are what we call ‘cognitive stingers,’” she explains. “There are people who want to use more cognitive energy, but most of us don’t. It’s easier to handle it. [news reports that examine] Complicated events in Washington. ”
University of Florida PhD student Sparks and co-author Jay Hamilowski, associate professor in the University of Florida School of Journalism and Communications, reviewed 5,847 news articles published three times a week in early 2021. Analyzed. However, it appears behind a paywall because we wanted to focus on coverage that everyone could access.
They examined political coverage from a variety of news outlets, including broadcast, digital natives and newswires. Of his twenty surveyed, seven were nonpartisan. 3 far left, 2 far right, and 8 outlets he produced articles that tended to lean at least somewhat to the right or left.
Sparks and Hmielowski determined outlet bias based on information gathered from three news bias evaluation websites (AllSides, Ad Fontes Media, and Media Bias/Fact Check). They used Readable to measure the negativity of each media coverage. This tool compares the number of negative words such as “bashing” and “banned” with the number of positive words such as “achievement” and “great”. work. Readability assessed narrative form based on factors such as sentence structure, the prevalence of impersonal and formal language, and whether personal pronouns such as “we” and “I” appear in the narrative. did.
Researchers determined the grade level required to understand each media-produced news article based on two widely used readability measures, the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level and the Gunning Fog Index. .
Sparks says she was surprised by the similarities between the far-left and far-right media organizations she surveyed. Both wrote at a lower grade level and used a simpler, less formal language.
“Most research suggests that right-wing media is very different from other forms of media, and what we have found is that it is not necessarily so when it comes to readability,” she said. I will add.
Advice for journalists
It is unclear whether partisan outlets intentionally make their content easier to read and understand. increase.
“When audiences want content that reflects their attitudes and rejects mainstream journalism, partisan media on both sides of the political spectrum differentiate themselves in both content content and content style. benefit from,” the researchers wrote. “Sentence structure, informality, and tone may be one of her ways of achieving that.”
Sparks, who has appeared as a journalist in publications such as the Washington Post and the Indianapolis Monthly, says it’s important for journalists working in nonpartisan newsrooms to use simple language. But it also needs to provide the public with a nuanced understanding of the issues and events it covers, even if that complicates the news story.
Her advice to reporters: Take the time to explain different aspects of the problem. If a partisan oversimplifies the issue, take note of it in the press.
“This study provides a better idea of what we are up against and what journalists from reputable organizations want to consider when writing news about highly partisan politics. I think they will,” she says.
To learn more about media coverage and extreme politics, check out our article on the members of Congress who get the most media attention and our tips on Trump supporter rallies and coverage of far-right groups.