Language of the Media — I

November 2, 2008


by Vera Vine and James W. Pennebaker


An important part of the 2008 election is the language of the mainstream media. Accusations of media bias fly from both sides of the aisle, including the supposed deep-seated liberal (or, sometimes, conservative) bias of television and newspaper reporting. But without a concrete metric for assessing media bias, most arguments about it often descend into partisan maneuvering. Our text analysis software program, Language Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC; see, can help to quantify some of the media’s language. We focused on three major newspapers, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal.


What we did:


Overall, 138 news reports were collected, comprising 46 topics covered by each of three newspapers, The New York Times (NYT), The Wall Street Journal (WSJ), and the Washington Post (WP), spanning the period beginning with the formation of the first presidential ticket on August 22, 2008, through the launching of the final week of campaigning on October 27, 2008. These newspapers were chosen because of their independence (each is owned by a different company), large readership, and reputations for influential and exemplary reporting. As of November 2, Obama has been endorsed by the NYT and WP; the WSJ has not endorsed anyone – although it has a conservative reputation.


To make comparison possible, news reports were selected so that each news story had counterparts with identical topics and similar dates to the other two newspapers. Thirteen articles from each paper were about Barack Obama’s campaign, thirteen were about John McCain’s campaign, eleven covered the U.S. economic crisis, and nine covered general election news concerning both parties equally (e.g., debates, shifts in polls).


What we found: Comparing the campaign coverage within each newspaper:


The New York Times:

The NYT articles about the McCain campaign were longer than those about the Obama campaign (on average almost 250 words longer). Pronoun use also differed: the NYT used significantly more impersonal pronouns when covering the McCain campaign, and more “you” when covering the Obama campaign.


The Washington Post:

The WP used shorter sentences when covering the Obama campaign than they did with the McCain campaign. When covering Obama, the WP also used more personal pronouns, particularly “I” and “you,” and more verbs. The WP’s coverage of the Obama campaign is also nearly significantly higher on the index of “immediacy,” a factor thought to indicate informal style (Pennebaker & King, 1999).


The Wall Street Journal:

The WSJ had the fewest differences between coverage of the two campaigns. Although no differences reached the level of significance, some trends suggest that the WSJ’s language when covering McCain’s campaign contain more negations, more anxiety words, more certainty words (“absolute,” “certainly”), and more exclusive words (“except,” “but”).


Taken together, these results suggest that the WSJ may actually be less biased than the NYT and WP in their political news reporting, despite a more conservative reputation. These results may be consistent with another study of media bias conducted by a group of political scientists (Groseclose, T. & Milyo, J. (2005). A Measure of Media Bias. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 120, 1191-1237).


Comparing the mentions of candidates’ names:


Not unexpectedly, news stories in all papers said “Obama” and “Biden” more when reporting on the Obama campaign, and “Palin” more when reporting on McCain’s. What is somewhat surprising is that the newspapers referenced McCain much more freely, regardless of which campaign was the focus of the news report, which might suggest a preoccupation with McCain, or a tendency to consider news about Obama in light of McCain’s activities.


As for mentions of George W. Bush, considered by many to be the specter haunting this election, there was a trend suggesting higher rates of use of “Bush” when covering Barack Obama’s campaign, but only in the NYT. Obama sought to link McCain to the Bush administration, so perhaps the NYT has more coverage of these Obama talking points than the other newspapers do. Or perhaps this difference suggests that McCain’s attempts to distance himself from Bush may have been somewhat successful.   


Comparing the newspapers with each other:


Despite the differences in language between the coverage of the campaigns, the overall styles of the three newspapers were fairly similar when news reports on all 4 topics were taken together. When the language did differ, it tended to be in the expected directions based on the papers’ respective areas of expertise. For example, the WSJ articles were the least personal in their writing style, using fewer social words and more quantifiers (e.g., “much,” “fewer”) and impersonal pronouns (“it,” “that,” “those”).  The WSJ language also included shorter sentences, fewer function words (i.e., non-content words including pronouns, prepositions, and particles), less use of “we” and “they,” fewer verbs of almost all types, fewer exclusive words (such as “except,” “but”), and fewer cognitive mechanism words (“think,” “know”).


Long considered the “writers’ newspaper,” the WP used longer sentences, more “we,” more present tense and less past tense, fewer quantifiers, and somewhat fewer cognitive mechanism words.


The take-away:


The emotional tone of the coverage of the two candidates was surprisingly even handed across all three newspapers.  There was a weak trend suggesting a more personal tone in reporting on Obama’s campaign by the WP and NYT.


The next step will be to tease apart the linguistic styles of the reporters. For example, does the more personal and dynamic quality of reporting on Obama come from the language the reporters bring to the table, or from the oratorical style of things Obama is quoted as saying?  This is ultimately the dilemma in understanding any translation: Is the message an accurate account of the original speaker or does it reflect the psychological makeup of the translator?


3 Responses to “Language of the Media — I”

  1. My friend on Facebook shared this link and I’m not dissapointed at all that I came to your blog.

  2. Debra van Enkenvoort Says:

    A fascinating study, I’d love to learn more about it.A fellow writer on Multiply posted the original article, on one of the groups that I belong to.

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