As the American news landscape polarizes, outlets have fragmented into those with left- versus right-leaning audiences. The format has moved from journalistic reporting to debate-style formats to those having two, three or more talking heads all speaking from one side of an issue. Watching an entire panel agree on every issue makes it difficult to feel like the entire story is being told or that the audience is learning anything of value.
This type of polarization in reporting is increasingly reflected in the audience and the politicians they elect. Both left and right leaning outlets demonize the other side and charge that those who follow a competitor lack the mental capacity to understand the true complexities of the world. “Low information voters” has become a popular phrase to belittle those who hold an opposing viewpoint. Anne Coulter’s book, “If Democrats Had Any Brains, They’d Be Republicans” sums up the animosity that pervades much of the discussion.
So, this begs the question – who, if anyone is right? Does one side actually have a leg up on the other or are they just two sides of the same coin? A 2013 Pew Research Center survey testing knowledge about general news and political knowledge showed no difference between Republicans (8.7 correct/13 questions) and Democrats (8.6/13). So, there you have it. These political groups appear to be large tents with diverse memberships.
Reading, writing and ROFL
Suffice to say that the two groups are equally familiar with political trivia, but are there differences in how they communicate? We wanted to compare the level of discourse ongoing at each of the news sites (yes, you know where this deep, dark hole is leading). To do so, we applied the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level Formula to the written comments by readers of various news websites. Obviously this cannot account for the intellectual content of the comments, but only the level of writing being used to communicate.
We chose four articles, posted on the same day, concerning the Russian parliament authorizing Vladimir Putin to leverage military resources in any effort to secure Russian interests in Ukraine:
“Ukraine forces on high alert after Putin gets permission to use military” – Foxnews.com
“Russia’s Parliament Approves Putin’s Request For Troops In Ukraine” - NPR.org
“Putin gets OK for armed intervention in Ukraine” - MSNBC.com
“Ukraine crisis: U.S. tells Russia to withdraw forces” - CBC.ca
For each article, we sub-sampled the first 50 comments that loaded when we accessed the page to generate an average reading grade-level equivalency score. Here are the results:
So, take the data and interpret away! Not surprisingly, the grades are low, but it is a comment section after all. Fox and MSNBC certainly play into the polarizing strategy and both scored on the low end. Is there more fighting and less genuine contribution from their audiences?