The Evolution of Communicating the News

evolving language of the news 550x401 1

It used to be you woke up with a newspaper and ended the day with the TV news. Now we wake up checking email and social media and end the day the same way. As a result, news sources and styles of reporting are rapidly evolving. We now have many options for keeping up with current events. We can look to “traditional” sources, such as newspapers, TV, or radio, or we can turn to social media sites to keep us informed.

The option you choose may depend on your age. A study from PEW Research Center concluded that “news sources are competing with social networking for the attention of people under 25” since “…as many used Facebook or another social networking site yesterday as got news from all sources combined (76% vs. 71%).” This led us to wonder, has the advent of additional news sources affected the linguistic style of “traditional” sources? How has the linguistic style changed over time?

Using our Quantified Communications natural language processing technology, we analyzed over 100 archived newspaper articles sorted by decade dating back to the 1920s, up to the early 2000s. Out of the linguistic metrics we analyzed, 3 trends in particular stood out:

  1. Increasing engagement
  2. Decreasing confidence
  3. Increasing use of qualitative supporting material (storytelling)

The increase in engagement and storytelling comes as no surprise. With the average attention span being reported at only 5 seconds, news sources find it more and more difficult to capture and hold the attention of their audiences so many are turning to flashy graphics, interactive tickers and the occasional inconsequential Hollywood news story to keep their audiences engaged.

What is surprising is the decrease in confident language used to report the news. One possible explanation may be how quickly news sources try to get information out to the public. In the past, a news agency was only expected to report a couple times a day and, as a result, had more time to verify facts before reporting to the public. Reporters and journalists could feel confident that their information was accurate and therefore used language that conveyed that confidence. Today however, news agencies are expected to report on events in near real-time and must do so in order to remain competitive. However, often times, in order to be the first to report on breaking news, valuable fact checking time is sacrificed. So, to avoid losing credibility or having to correct statements, reporters may use tentative language instead. They can report a story as speculation rather than hard fact.

There is no question the role of traditional news sources has evolved because of social media. According to “media manipulator” Ryan Holiday, author of Trust Me, I’m Lying, “blogs compete to get stories first, newspapers compete to ‘confirm’ it, and then pundits compete for airtime to opine on it.” One study from Cision and George Washington University found that 89% of journalists use blogs for story research. Ultimately, in this ever-changing environment, reporters are trying to make an impact and connect with their readers/listeners. However, with occurrences such as CNN misreporting a suspect had been arrested in connection with the Boston bombing, trust in news sources has been compromised. Confident language inspires trust from an audience, but if that trust is lost, it is near impossible to fully gain back.