A democracy bias? Using text-mining to explore word choices in the American media

Do the American media consistently differentiate between systems of government with their language? Are non-democratic regimes consistently treated more negatively than democratic regimes, or are democratic regimes more subject to criticism because of their close ideological proximity to the United States? Is there any difference at all?

Scholarly studies suggest that media is not only responsible for setting and altering the public agenda, as described in agenda-setting theory, but also for the formation of public opinion on the proclaimed relevant topics of a particular time period. As one of the most quintessentially "American" values, it would be easy to imagine that 'democracy' continuously carries a positive connotation in Western media. Alternatively, non-democratic forms of government like autocracies, monarchies, or dictatorships might have negative connotations, since they do not directly reflect American values.

To explore the potential bias for or against different forms of government in the media, I compiled two lists of words (actually: word stems) to reflect all of the non-democratic forms of government and democracies, respectively. The former list consisted of 'autocra', 'monarch', 'dictator', 'oligarch', 'technocra', 'theocra', 'aristocra', 'junta', and 'totalitarian'. Democracies were represented with the prefix 'democra'.

In the New York Times in 2015, 0.2% of all sentences included one of the aforementioned word stems. In total, 2,916 sentences were about democracies and 2,195 sentences were about one of the nine other forms of government. Consequently, for every one sentence containing a 'non-democratic' word, there were 1.3 sentences written about democracies / democrats (Note: I excluded 'Democra-' with a capital 'D', to avoid incorporating references to the U.S. Democratic Party). These results suggest that the difference between how often democracies and other regime types are spoken about in the media is hardly significant.

Noteworthy words used in sentences about democracies (the complete list appears below) included 'aggression', 'consolidation', 'reliable', 'whites', 'jails', 'eccentricity', 'icon', 'effectively', 'destroying', 'shameful', 'undermined', 'turnout', 'inaugural', 'corporations', 'privacy', 'diverse', 'tolerance', 'champion', 'peoples', 'expense' and 'campaigns'. As a whole, the list of words on democracies appeared political in nature and close to what one might have expected to see from liberal newspaper articles.

In contrast, the list of words on non-democratic forms of government was not as clearly tied to politics. Although several the words most commonly used in sentences with non-democratic governments were 'fascist', 'provincial', 'impeached', 'allied', 'tortured', 'queen', 'suppressed', 'leftists', 'el-qaddafi', and 'right-wing', the rest of the list was composed of words like 'mansion', 'rhyme', 'plays', 'spooky', 'playwright', 'iron', 'butterflies', 'gospel', 'household', 'lovingly', 'leapfrog', and 'nightmarish'.

The prominence of such non-political terms underscores the difficulty of precisely specifying a topic of interest. Thus, the word stems 'monarch' and 'aristocra' don't only refer to non-democratic forms of government, but also to individuals (monarchs and aristocrats) prominent in literature and the arts (Downton Abbey, for instance!), and even to butterflies (monarch).

To improve the analysis, the word associations found could be further analyzed using manual coding to determine the actor-subject identification of certain negative words found in the lists, such as 'destroying', 'undermined', 'aggression', 'suppressed', and 'tortured'. Determining who is the actor has major implications on the interpretation of each list. Additionally, further analysis could look into the relationship between private (media) bias and public (national) bias, and expand both the newspaper sources and years analyzed.

The table below provides the list of words most strongly associated with each category.


Associated with the word stem 'democra' Associated with word stems representing non-democratic forms of government
aggression, eligible, consolidation, sentimental, reliable, inevitably, shared, separation, wherever, eccentricity, whites, strategies, effectively, jails, destroying, inaugural, undermined, processes, shameful, mainland, consolidate, viable, campaigns, turnout, exposing, creates, promotion, reflected, corporations, privacy, advocated, screenplay, strengthen, topics, genuine, promotes, opposite, icon, diverse, session, tolerance, procedures, numerous, relevant, champion, undermines, developing, characteristics, peoples, expense mansion, imagines, rhyme, treating, plays, history-skimming, watchable, fascist, proxy, spooky, compulsively, reign, recall, leapfrogs, household, provincial, flat-out, executed, lovingly, destroyed, burial, reader, impeached, nightmarish, ministries, butterflies, allied, signature, playwright, infused, interviews, cousin, linked, evasion, audacious, collaboration, tortured, queen, vicariously, gospel, migration, resigned, iron, suppressed, license, leftists, adapted, el-qaddafi, von, right-wing




Comments powered by Disqus