This week two British media giants, the Daily Mail and the Guardian, got into an inter-title fight about who encourages hate and negativity.
The Press Gazette best sums up the story, which started when the Guardian implied that the Mail and Sun are to blame for the recent attack on a mosque.
The Guardian published a cartoon of a white van outside Finsbury Park mosque, where one person was killed, with ‘Read the Sun and the Daily Mail’ on the vehicle. The Mail took this as implying that it incited the attacker to kill Muslims and fumed, replying with the editorial “Fake news, the fascist Left and the REAL purveyors of hatred”.
In short, both sides accuse the other of peddling noxious opinions, and in particular the Daily Mail effectively says that the Guardian can get off its high horse as its views are just as noxious. Are they?
The Mail has a point
Yes, the Daily Mail has a point. While the Guardian may not typically have immigrants, saboteurs or judges as targets of its wrath, it does similarly emotive language in descriptions of its enemies (usually tories).
What it comes down to is the Mail says that the Guardian’s views may be left politically, but they are just as negative as the Mail claims the Guardian thinks it is.
This chart shows the average proportion of ‘anger’ words in the body copy and headlines for 12,000 Mail and Guardian opinion pieces spanning the past couple of decades. They’re not so different in terms of the average about of anger and negative words they use in body copy and headlines, and use more on average than other British newspapers.
In 2013 I analysed 60,000 opinion columns from 6 British newspapers — the Daily Express, Mail, Independent, Mirror, Guardian and Telegraph — for a range of measures. This included sentiment, and emotional proportions within text, using the LIWC 2007.
I was looking at a range of things, including the question of whether the internet had changed the way newspapers wrote — would they become more emotional to target their niches. I chose opinion columns for I took it that an opinion column — editorials, those written by regular as well as guest columnists and commentators — was the most suitable way to see what a paper really thinks as opposed to reporting a news event.
I split the headlines and body copy out as headlines are often written separately to the body, and can also give an idea of what phrasing the paper thinks will draw readers’ attention.
At the time I vowed to publish each week. I didn’t in the end, in part as I saw no market and in part I was looking around if someone was interested in publishing, and while I got some interest, it was a case of “what does this lead to”? This is what it leads to.
Whenever there are two colours, blue is the body copy, red is the headline. Y-axis is the proportion of content meeting that definition. Or just hover over the images for the legend to appear.
Average negative emotion in headlines and body for all newspapers
The following charts make it clearer, but there is a definitive difference between newspapers and their negativity, and a similarity between the Mail and Guardian.
Average anger in headlines and body for all newspapers
The Guardian has angrier content, on average, than the Mail – 0.884 v 0.839.
Most negative content
The Daily Mail is the most negative, but the Guardian isn’t far behind.
Angriest headlines and body (split out)
The Daily Mail has the angriest headlines, but not the angriest content — that’s the Guardian
The Mirror is overall the most positive, although the Guardian is slightly more positive in its message than the Mail.
Negative emotions in headlines and body over time
Before 2006 I have less data, which may explain the variation (and is why the other charts are based on data from 2008 onwards), but while headlines change in tone, the body copy has largely been consistent. Zoom in to 1 or 2-year views and there’s no large change over the months, not even at Christmas.
Change in negativity over time for all papers
ALl newspapers have largely been consistent over the years. I had been expecting them to become more emotional as they strive to distinguish themselves on the internet.
Mail change in negativity over time
Love it or hate it, the Mail has largely stuck to its tone over the years, perhaps a little more negative of late.
Guardian change in negativity over time
As with the Mail, the Guardian has been roughly consistent in its tone.
Word count over time
This is the only chart that shows a real change over time. Many style guides for online suggest keeping the body length short (something I ought to be better at) and you can see that as the internet becomes more important for revenue around 2005 the length shortens.
Why creep up again? Honest answer, I don’t know, but it could be a suspicion that people are so quick to move onto another article that it doesn’t matter whether it was long or not — if the reader likes it, they’ll stick to the end, regardless of the length (within reason). Or it could be my data set.
The Daily Mail v Mail Online
Part of the beef the Daily Mail has is that it accuses the Guardian of confusing MailOnline with the Daily Mail and I use ‘the Mail’ in general terms partly due to reasons in this article. As such I can’t guarantee the data solely contains Daily Mail rather than MailOnline articles (they are apparently separately companies though both owned by DMGT), though if I reviewed it I probably could.
I should carry out significance tests, but for a quick and dirty evaluation (if 60,000 articles can be seen as that) it serves a point — that the Mail isn’t as wrong as many would like to think.
As this former journalist says, the Daily Mail isn’t all bad and this wasn’t published to bash it. In fact it was the Guardian accusing others of being so hateful that spurred me onto this data research back in the day.
What can both papers learn? I’ve not seen their sales, link shares and page views or other closed data as that would be the best way to see if there was a correlation between tone and readership. But they can both learn that while the topics of their wrath, their readership, their font, their style, all differ, there are more similarities than some would be comfortable with.