A new Rand study published earlier this week finds that the news media have become more subjective and opinionated over the past 30 years, and suggests the shift away from fact-based reporting has contributed to the public’s growing distrust of the news media.
The report does not consider how journalists’ personal partisan skew is part of the problem, but it is. For decades, surveys and research has shown that those in the elite news media are much more liberal than the general public, with vast majorities holding liberal views on public policy issues and reporting that they voted for Democratic presidential candidates.
In an earlier era, this liberalism on the part of reporters and editors undoubtedly affected the agenda of stories they chose to cover, and the expert sources they chose to showcase, but their presentation style was meant to seem objective. News stories were tilted in a liberal direction, but still tended to include both sides.
The trend towards subjectivity and opinion in today’s news means that journalists’ liberalism is even more of a factor in what audiences read and see, with many in the media pushing to exclude arguments that they do not consider valid. Instead of attempting to create a somewhat balanced presentation, journalists openly fret about creating a “false equivalency” between liberal arguments that they agree with, vs. conservative arguments they disagree with.
The Rand report looked at a sample of newspaper front pages and transcripts of broadcast evening newscasts from 1989 through 2017, plus transcripts of prime-time cable programs, and online news stories from 2000 to 2017. The researchers, assisted by a computer program, analyzed language patterns and concluded that over time “journalism has gradually shifted away from objective news and offers more opinion-based content that appeals to emotion and relies heavily on argumentation and advocacy.”
According to Rand’s press release: “The findings point to 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.”
In the 244-page report itself, the researchers note that their “results raise an important question about how changes in news presentation could influence the relationship between news consumers and the media more generally. Data show that trust in media institutions has fallen dramatically over the past decade.”
Indeed, the latest Gallup poll shows that while trust in the media has rebounded from the lows of 2016, it is far below its historical average. There’s also a substantial partisan divide, with Democrats far more likely than Republicans to say that they trust the media.
The Rand authors acknowledge that “past research clearly shows that attitudes toward the media are heavily affected by partisanship.”
We cannot definitively describe the relationship between trust and changes in news presentation, but we do have evidence that the types of changes in news presentation that we identified in this report are relevant to individual news consumer decisions about which media organizations to trust. Specifically, trends toward subjective journalism that features more personal perspective and more emotion might influence trust in the news media.
Of course, truly objective journalism was never possible, but having objectivity as a purported goal was at least a brake on the media’s liberal bias. As they shift towards blatant subjectivity, emotion and opinion, journalists’ biases are pulling the industry even further to the left. That’s something Democrats might tell Gallup they “trust,” but conservatives will never accept.