Data Underscore Brokaw's Assertion of Media Negativity

Data Underscore Brokaw's Assertion of Media Negativity
AP Photo/Jason DeCrow
Data Underscore Brokaw's Assertion of Media Negativity
AP Photo/Jason DeCrow
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Earlier this month, NBC elder statesman Tom Brokaw reflected on the state of media today, which in his view has become “just a 24/7 rage about what’s pissing people off across the board from the left to the right.” Looking back at half a century of media data, it turns out there is significant evidence to support his argument. 

The timeline below shows the average tone of the New York Times (from my 2011 Culturomics 2.0 study)  by month from 1945 to 2005. The results are presented as Z-scores (standard deviations from the mean), with higher numbers meaning the Times’ coverage was more positive that month and lower numbers meaning it was more negative. In the newspaper’s reporting, the 1960s represented a turbulent time from which the nation has never recovered, with the events of 9/11 further dampening the national spirit.

Looking globally to the print, broadcast and online news media of much of the world in over 100 languages, as recorded by BBC Monitoring from 1979-2010, the timeline below shows the average tone (again as Z-scores) of worldwide journalism declining almost linearly towards greater and greater negativity over the past quarter-century.

Look more closely and the shift towards negativity can be seen to accelerate in the late 1990s -- alongside the rise of online news. With this rise of digital journalism, suddenly even a small-town newspaper was now competing for readership with outlets from across the world, increasing the lure of unique and sensational stories and editorialized language more likely to draw in readership.

The 24/7 nature of digital publishing means the public is increasingly drinking from a journalistic firehose, a cascade of reports of every event, no matter how minor or obscure. The upshot of this can be seen in mapping global protest intensity over the past 40 years, drawn from news reports, which paints an image of an increasingly restless citizenry. Yet, a closer look shows that the dramatic increase in protest activity of the past two decades is merely a product of vastly increased journalistic output and accessibility in the digital age. For example, whereas even a large protest 40 years ago in a faraway country might have gone unnoticed by the American public, today even a small gathering of people with signs is frequently enough to warrant a news report or social media post.

The election of Donald Trump also appears to have been a watershed moment in media tone. The timeline below shows the average monthly Z-score LIWC tone of CNN, MSNBC and Fox News using data from the Internet Archive’s Television News Archive processed by the GDELT Project. (Click the image for a larger view.)

The three channels were closely aligned over the past decade up until the election of Donald Trump, with September 2017 marking the moment when they sharply diverged. MSNBC has remained the most negative ever since, Fox News the most positive and CNN in the middle.

Add to this mix the rise of the social media echo chamber. By the end of 2018, nearly 11% of all tweets each day were tweets or retweets of a “verified user,” meaning a tiny group of users now determines more than a tenth of the entire Twitterverse each day.

More troubling still, the timeline below shows the total percentage of all tweets each day that are retweets, reaching more than 51% by the end of 2018, even as the service shrunk from more than 500 million tweets a day to just over 320 million tweets a day. Twitter has rapidly transitioned from a place to hear from ordinary people into a massive echo chamber of the elites.

Putting this all together, there is considerable truth to Brokaw’s remarks, with the turbulent 1960s, the rise of online journalism and the election of Donald Trump standing as particular inflection points. The real-time nature of today’s journalism saturates us with reporting, while social media’s devolution into an echo chamber merely amplifies this cacophony. The result is an overwhelmed, more anxious and ultimately less informed citizenry, a dynamic that raises questions about the future of our democracy.

RealClear Media Fellow Kalev Leetaru is a senior fellow at the George Washington University Center for Cyber & Homeland Security. His past roles include fellow in residence at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Future of Government.

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