By David Rozado and Aaron Wudrick
March 8, 2023
In recent years, traditional news media has undergone a great transition. At the same time, criticism of news media has increased with most surveys showing that it is suffering from declining public trust. The reasons for this decline are hotly contested, but one common critique has been that the focus of many news media outlets has changed in recent years. This paper undertakes a quantitative analysis to test this critique by looking at changes in the language used by news media in Canada.
In American news media, mentions of terms that signify distinct forms of prejudice have risen dramatically since 2010. This paper undertakes a similar analysis of Canadian news media, using data from 14 major Canadian news outlets for the period of 2000 to 2021. We find a similar rise in the prevalence of social-justice language in both English and French media from outlets across the political spectrum.
These increases in the prominence of prejudice themes in news media present something of a paradox because they conflict with the well-documented decline in self-reported explicit prejudicial attitudes among the American public over the past six decades.
What is driving this phenomenon? The news media might simply be reflecting rising levels of prejudice in society. But evidence about whether prejudice is increasing in recent years is contradictory, with some authors arguing that it is indeed rising, some academics arguing that prejudice has not decreased but merely become less overt, and others rejecting this hypothesis.
The potential role of the news media in driving public opinion through its agenda-setting effect is another possibility that cannot be discounted. Increasing prominence in the news media of topics such as terrorism or crime has been shown to precede increasing public preoccupation with those topics, irrespective of the actual levels of crime or terrorism.
In this study, we analysed over 6 million news and opinion articles from 14 of the most popular news media outlets in Canada (nine English and five French). Our analysis shows that terms displaying the starkest increase in prominence between 2010 and 2021 are those relating to gender-identity prejudice, which saw a staggering 2285 percent increase. In contrast, terms referring to sexual orientation prejudice have actually decreased in prevalence since their peak around 2011. Terms referring to other prejudice types, such as sexism or Islamophobia, peaked close to the middle of the decade. Others, like racism or transphobia, seem to have peaked later in the decade. Notably, references to anti-Semitism are the only ones that do not display a clear upwards trend in the 21st century.
The paper suggests six possible catalysts to explain the post-2010 explosion in the Canadian news media’s use of terms relating to prejudice. First, Canada’s news media may simply be mirroring news media trends in America, though this hypothesis is not fully consistent with the underlying data. Second, societal prejudice may have increased in recent years and media coverage is simply reflecting this reality. However, it is difficult to establish cause and effect. Third, the trends documented here could be symptomatic of increasing public and institutional sensitivity to prejudice.
Of course, these media trends may result from a fourth possible factor, an increasing ideological skew among news media professionals, with some evidence showing that news media professionals are becoming increasingly and disproportionately left-leaning. Fifth, the patterns in Canadian news media discourse this paper codifies could also be partially explained as cultural shifts. Finally, the reported trends may arise from the existence of financial incentives for news media to use highly emotional language in order to maximize digital “click-throughs.”
It is clear that the impact on public opinion of a higher prevalence in the news media of terms that signify prejudice warrants further exploration.