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June 28, 2023, 1:23 p.m.
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Why researchers shouldn’t study The New York Times to understand U.S. news media as a whole

“I think the value of our paper is to tell researchers that you can use The New York Times, but you need to realize The New York Times is representative of itself.”

Researchers studying U.S. news outlets should stop focusing so much on The New York Times because it differs drastically from other news media, two scholars write in a new paper in the journal Political Communication.

For decades, researchers have looked to The New York Times to help them understand U.S. newsrooms and their audiences. For example, a paper published in late 2022 examines Times articles about post-traumatic stress disorder to better understand how news outlets cover military PTSD and PTSD among the American public.

When researchers wanted to know how public support for legalizing marijuana has changed since the early 1980s, they studied survey data along with three decades of the newspaper’s coverage. The New York Times was the only U.S. outlet included in a 2022 international study of how news media portrayed Christian churches and other religious organizations in their coverage of COVID-19.

The problem is the publication isn’t representative of U.S news outlets — it’s an outlier, John Maxwell Hamilton, a journalism professor at Louisiana State University, told me. He cowrote the new paper, “Not all the news that’s fit to print: The New York Times as a research tool,” with Heidi J.S. Tworek, an associate professor of international history and public policy at the University of British Columbia.

The news outlet, located in the nation’s most populous city, employs 1,700 journalists and has won more Pulitzer Prizes than any other in U.S. history — twice as many as The Washington Post, which has the second-highest number of Pulitzers. It reported having close to 10 million paid subscribers as of May 2023.

As many local news outlets struggle to survive, the NYT earned operating profits totaling $27.9 million in the first quarter of 2023, up from $6.3 million the first quarter of 2022.

“I think the value of our paper is to tell researchers that you can use The New York Times, but you need to realize The New York Times is representative of itself,” Hamilton says. “It’s a mistake to confuse [its coverage] with what people everywhere get daily.”

What does this mean for readers of academic research that focuses entirely or mostly on The New York Times? These studies are of limited value to anyone hoping to learn about U.S. news media as a whole. However, they do offer insights into how one of the country’s most influential publications interprets the world and engages with its audience.

Why researchers rely on The New York Times

Hamilton and Tworek write that there are two main reasons researchers turn so frequently to the Times. Many universities cannot afford subscriptions to digitized newspapers besides The New York Times and The Times of London, they note. Also, The New York Times promotes itself to researchers and has worked for generations to make its content available.

“In 1940, when libraries were beginning to use microfilm, The [New York] Times became an early adopter of the medium,” Hamilton and Tworek write. “In 1980, the paper launched a computerized database of story abstracts for commercial use. Later, as noted by an executive who helped lead the effort, ‘The Times was THE pioneer in news digitization with its NYT Information Bank.’”

Case study examines use of the term “fake news”

Hamilton and Tworek urge researchers to broaden their studies to include a wider range of news outlets. In their paper, they discuss the findings of a brief case study they conducted that demonstrates The New York Times also differs from other newspapers in its use of key terms.

The two scholars examined news articles from the Times and 20 other outlets — four large outlets, eight medium ones, and eight small ones — looking for patterns in how they used the words “propaganda,” “fake news,” “false news,” and “disinformation” from the 1850s to 2021. One of the findings: Since 2015, The New York Times has used the terms “fake news” and “propaganda” much more often than the other publications have.

“The most important finding from this research was not comparisons among all the papers; it was that the Times was an outlier,” Hamilton and Tworek write.

They recommend researchers start doing these three things:

  • Treat The New York Times as one type of news serving one segment of the U.S. population.“No single newspaper can represent all the rest,” they write. “One has to look at a variety, national, regional, and local; fortunately, newspaper databases have made it possible to conduct that research, especially if scholars are located at a wealthy institution with subscriptions to multiple databases and can pay for the privilege of big-data research.”
  • Familiarize themselves with the newspaper’s history. “At times, it was closer to setting the national agenda than others,” Hamilton and Tworek write. “That historical context matters because it can help scholars (and particularly students) from falling into the trap of extrapolating the Times’ current position back into the past and basing research methodologies upon that faulty assumption.”
  • Keep in mind that radio and TV news reaches more people. “It can be harder to investigate TV news, particularly for the early decades when record-keeping was poor,” they write. “But TV news long reached many more millions of Americans than the Times and, of course, more recently, cable news channels have developed symbiotic relationships of influence with their particular audience segments and politicians, most famously Donald Trump and Fox News. So too, talk radio has a reach that is far greater than any newspapers.”

Denise-Marie Ordway is managing editor of The Journalist’s Resource, where this piece was originally published.

Photo of The New York Times building by Thomas Hawk used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     June 28, 2023, 1:23 p.m.
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