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How the Style and Language of News Presentation Is Changing in the Digital Age

Over the past 30 years, the ways that Americans consume and share information have changed dramatically. No longer do people wait for the morning paper or the evening news. Instead, equipped with smartphones or other digital devices, the average person spends hours each day online, looking at news or entertainment websites or using social media and consuming many different types of information.

Although some of the changes in the way news and information are disseminated can be quantified, far less is known about how the presentation of news—that is, its style and linguistic characteristics—has changed over this period and differs across media platforms.

The general trends observed in the RAND team’s analysis provide initial evidence of a gradual and subtle shift over time and between old and new media toward a more subjective form of journalism that is grounded in personal perspective. The team found evidence of a shift from a journalistic style based on the use of public language, academic register, references to authority, and event-based reporting to one based more heavily on personal perspective, narration, and subjectivity. The RAND team saw this trend in broadcast news and, to a lesser extent, in newspapers. Most notably, the research team was able to quantitatively measure the extent of these changes across platforms and over time.

In comparing the characteristics of “new” and “old” media, the research team found that cable programming today is highly interactive and subjective and relies on arguments and opinions to persuade and debate—a stark contrast from the more academic style and precise language employed in broadcast television in the pre-2000 period. Similarly, the study’s online journalism sample was characterized by a personal and subjective style that, in many cases, emphasized argument and advocacy and was very different than the pre-2000 print journalism sample, which relied more heavily on event-based reporting that often referred to authoritative institutions or sources.

Although the RAND team did find evidence of more widespread use of opinion and subjectivity in the presentation of news than in the past, the change has been subtle, not wholesale. News reporting has not shifted from Walter Cronkite–style serious reporting to fiction or propaganda—even in the biggest contrasts that the team saw, there was still much similarity. Future research could extend this type of analysis to other types of media, such as local newspapers and television news, news radio programs, video content, and photographs that appear alongside news stories.

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