A valuable new tool has become available for linguists — armchair and professional alike — to explore the language of contemporary news. The TV News Archive has been around for a while; it stores the text content of English-language broadcast news in machine-readable format. Now a more user-friendly tool has been designed to go with it: a database of ngrams.

What's an ngram? A text string with zero or more divisions, or to put it more simply, one or more words. Beach is a one-gram. Beach blanket is a two-gram or bi-gram. Beach blanket bingo is a three-gram. All of these are, in tech speak, ngrams.

Anyone who watches television news, especially cable news, is aware of the various biases present, and in today's politically polarized world, the biases of various news outlets are increasingly reduced to stereotypes: Fox News is essentially state-run television for the Trump Administration, from one perspective; from another, MSNBC is a mouthpiece for liberal snowflakes and deep-state operatives. Al Jazeera is characterized as an apologist for the excesses of Islamic extremism, and so forth.

The news archive and the new database put within anyone's reach the ability to look at the bases of such characterizations more granularly and to generate good data visualizations that show who is talking about what, and how. I played around a bit with the tools to look at some common themes in the news today. I recommend the exercise to all: it gives everyone a good opportunity to inspect more closely the flows of language that wash over us from the media.

To start out simply, here's a look at the word (or, if you like, the one-gram) socialism. Depending on your preferred news source, you may view socialism as a utopia, a menace to society, or something in between these extremes, with or without a value judgment attached. Who talks about socialism? From 2009 until about 2017, hardly anyone. These days, it's a favorite talking point with Fox News, far more than with its competing outlets:

How about the two-gram deep state? This phrase also turns out to be something that largely flew under the radar (as you would expect!) until early 2017, when it became a regular trope on Fox News, and to a lesser extent, on other networks:

The three-gram impeach president trump gets a fair amount of airplay on all networks in the time span from January 2017 to the present, but again it's Fox News (shown in green below) that uses the phrase slightly more than twice as much as any other network:

You may conclude what you wish from the figures above, but one conclusion that's hard to avoid is that Fox News is preoccupied with politics to a degree that other broadcasters aren't.

The possibilities for exploration are endless. I find, for example, that Fox News uses the phrase lone gunman twice as much as any other network, but it runs neck-and-neck with CNN on active shooter. White supremacist is slight favorite on CNN, where it appears about 25% more often than on other networks. Terrorist occurs 40% more frequently on Fox News than on other networks. Muslim terrorist occurs twice as often on Al Jazeera than on any other network; after it, the order is Fox News, CNN, MSNBC.

In case you have ever doubted the degree to which the media lays out the main talking points in public discourse, here's a graph that shows the mentions of two 3-grams in the news from June 2012 to June 2013. I chose this timeframe because it encompasses the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in which 20 children and 6 adults were killed by one man with semiautomatic weapons:

The 3-grams are second amendment rights (blue) and gun control legislation (black). The American news media, judging by the peaks and troughs, cannot talk about these items separately and it looks as if the Second Amendment actually gets more airtime on the combined networks than gun control does. The notion that they might in fact be conceived of as independent of each other does not occur in the United States.

By contrast, here's a graph that shows the topics gun control and second amendment looked at through three lenses: blue is gun control on the American news networks. Black is gun control on international news networks (BBC, Al Jazeera, and DeutscheWelle combined). Green is second amendment on the same three international news networks.

It's notable that the international networks, while showing peaks at roughly the same times on gun control as the American networks, devote very little attention to talk about the U.S. Constitution's Second Amendment. Is there a good explanation? There are probably several, and it’s hard to avoid putting forth one that does not subject you to accusations of partisanship.

For me, the great value of statistics like these is the strong case they make for gathering one's information from a variety of sources, and especially for examining an outside-in perspective: the spin that American news outlets put on American news events is quite distinct from the way international observers see things.

To reinforce that point, here's a parting snapshot. The graph below shows the frequencies of mentions of climate change on six news outlets: the three main American ones and the three internationally focused ones previously noted. The highlighted news day is 7 November 2017, the second day of a UN climate change conference. The boxed highlight shows, in descending order, the frequency of mentions of the phenomenon on each of the networks.

Interestingly, all three international networks mention climate change more often than all three American networks. In fact, the international network with the lowest ranking, BBC, still mentions it twice as often as the U.S. network with the highest ranking, MSNBC. So the country that, after China, contributes the most to climate change devotes considerably less time to talking about it than others do.

If they convince you of nothing else, the figures and discussion above should alert any American reader to the parochialism of American news, and the benefit of learning something about your own country from the people who view it from the outside. This is surely true of every country, but especially true of the English-speaking country that is the hegemon of the English-speaking world. These new tools bring within the reach of everyone the ability to discover for themselves how news outlets translate events into narratives.


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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Comments from our users:

Monday September 2nd 2019, 8:54 AM
Comment by: Westy (Paris, OH)
I think the statement that Orin is an "independent lexicographer" is deliberately worded so as to be misinterpreted.
Monday September 2nd 2019, 2:41 PM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Deliberately worded, yes. Not intended to be misinterpreted. Please let me know what is not clear.

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