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David Rozado reports on recent language usage trends in US news media.

I recently published an article with Musa Al-Gharbi and Jamin Halberstadt where we analyzed the prevalence of words denoting prejudice in 27 million news and opinion articles written between 1970 and 2019 and published in 47 of the most popular news media outlets in the United States such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal or Fox News.

Our analysis focused primarily on tracking the prevalence of words that denote prejudice according to ethnicity, gender, sexual and religious orientation. A clear trend of increasing prevalence of prejudice signifying terms is apparent across the 47 news media outlets analyzed. The growing usage of prejudice related words in news articles has been consistent across news outlets regardless of their ideological leanings, but overall, prejudice-denoting words appear to be less prevalent in centrist outlets.

Factor analysis of the prejudice-signifying words analyzed shows that a single factor accounts for over 76% of all the variance. This is suggestive of a latent thread that permeates journalistic discursive patterns across the topics of ethnicity, gender, and sexual or religious orientation and from which the increased prevalence of prejudice-denoting terms could have flown. This is consistent with a story of growing sensitivity within the media with respect to prejudice and inequality irrespective of reference group—or perhaps it may reflect increased perceptions that different forms of prejudice across reference groups are interrelated.

We also tested whether prejudice-denoting words prevalence in news media predicts shifts in public opinion or the other way around. We found that word usage of ethnic and gender prejudice-denoting terms in news media is predictive of shifts in public opinion about the perceived severity of ethnic and gender prejudice. Further research is needed into potential causal factors for the trends observed as well as the impact of news media rhetoric on public consciousness and the social implications of growing perceptions of prejudice severity among the general population.

October 2021

Image credit: Yukiko Matsuoka, Creative Commons Attribution licence CC BY 2.0