New research shows that right-wing media tend to be more negative and angry. But the left also peddles fear.
A number of commentators have argued in recent years that the media places too much emphasis on negativity in its content. Is it true?
Answering this question is not an easy task, as it requires a standard against which media coverage can be compared. In other words, it is difficult to establish to what extent the media content should be negative or positive.
What we can certainly determine instead is how the sentiment (positive or negative) and emotional undertones (such as fear, anger, or joy) of news content compare to the same measures at different times in time. This allows us to determine whether news media content is becoming more positive over time, more negative, or staying about the same.
Over the past two years, we’ve conducted a research project to uncover precisely that – the sentiment and emotional nuances of 23 million headlines from a representative sample of 47 popular media outlets in the United States over the period 2000-2019.
The sheer volume of titles we considered meant that we had to use artificial intelligence in the form of machine learning models, which perform on par with human raters, for automated sentiment and emotion classification. in titles.
What we have found is that the sentiment of mainstream media headlines has indeed become progressively more negative since the year 2000. This means that headlines with negative connotations, such as “Brazil Prison Riot Leaves 9 Dead”, are becoming more and more widespread. On the other hand, titles with positive undertones, such as “A new lens restores vision and brings relief”, are less and less frequent.
Interestingly, when we split the news media into the ideological views they are broadly associated with, we found that right-wing news media headlines were consistently more negative than their left-leaning counterparts. After 2013, headline negativity in left-leaning news media seems to increase dramatically. These trends may be partly related to a sharp increase in the news media’s use of terminology that describes prejudice (such as racism, sexism, and homophobia) and political extremism (such as far right or far left).
When we analyzed the specific emotional undertones of the titles in more detail, we found that the proportion of anger and fear nearly doubled in frequency over this time period. Headlines full of anger and fear such as “Giving free meals to poor children in school should not be controversial. Tell that to the Republicans in Congress! or “Is the rape epidemic in Sweden linked to the influx of Muslim immigrants?” are increasingly widespread. Sadness and disgust are also increasingly reflected in headlines, albeit to a lesser extent. On the other hand, the proportion of emotionally neutral titles is decreasing.
We found that right-wing media tend to use angry headlines more often than left-wing media. On the other hand, the rise in fear-denoting headlines and the decline in emotionally neutral headlines were very similar across all media, regardless of their ideological leanings.
How should we interpret these results? It is clear from our analysis that the negativity, anger, sadness and fear conveyed by media headlines increase over time. But why is this happening? Does it reflect a broader societal mood or just the feelings and emotions of American newsrooms?
We believe that financial pressures to maximize click-through rates in response to declining media industry revenues may play a role in the headlines’ growing negativity and emotionality over time. Writing headlines to advance political agendas away from standards of factual objectivity could also play a role.
The higher prevalence of headlines denoting negativity and anger in right-wing news media is notable, but we can only speculate about its causes.
One possibility is that the right-wing news media simply uses more negative language than the left-wing news media to describe the same phenomenon. Some authors have argued that there is a connection between right-wing political orientation and a disposition or sensitivity to negative stimuli and events.
Alternatively, this trend could be driven by differences in topic coverage between the two outlet types. But to be clear, these are just possibilities. Much more research is needed to answer these questions.
One thing is certain though. If you think your news diet is more depressing these days, you’re not crazy, and how depressed depends on what you read. The next task for researchers: to dig deeper into how this growing negativity of news content affects readers as well as democratic institutions and processes.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.
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