Radio in Progress: Political Word Watch

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For an upcoming Freakonomics Radio episode, we’ve been doing some research on media bias. We came across this paper by Northwestern researchers, part of a growing body of work that uses computational analysis to turn political speech into data. Simply by examining speech patterns, the researchers were able to predict the political affiliation of U.S. Senators with 94% accuracy.

They broke down the nouns, adjectives, verbs, and adverbs most common to each party. For instance: liberals use the adjective “gay” while conservatives favor “homosexual.” Adverbs preferred by liberals include “disproportionately,” “ecologically” and “indiscriminately”; conservatives favor “morally,” “objectively” and “constitutionally.” Overall, the authors observe that:

“….key issues discussed by liberals are energy and the environment (or alternative energy), corporate interests and lobbying, health care, inequality and education. For conservatives, the key issues discussed are taxation, abortion, stem cell research, family values, defense, and (to a lesser extent) government administration.”

Here’s a sample of some more keywords/phrases with high variance between the parties:

Democrats:

  • Middle class
  • Rosa Parks
  • Minimum wage
  • Drilling in the Arctic National
  • Victims of gun violence
  • War in Iraq

Republicans:

  • Stem cell
  • Illegal aliens
  • War on terror
  • Global war on terrorism

Jeremiah Stanghini

This reminds me of the work done by George Lakoff. Some fascinating stuff.

With Gratitude,

Jeremiah

Mike B

Wow, it's like they each have some sort of message they are trying to stay on. I am shocked...SHOCKED!!

Shane

Interesting. I'd like to see such a study applied to a political system with more than two major parties also. I've always thought 'conservative' and 'liberal' are strange and artificial categories for complex sets of views. How would greens, libertarians, Christian social democrats, anti-immigration nationalists and so on look?

Duncan

This may just be my bias, but does anyone else notice how Conservative/Republicans words seem to have a high associatiion with religion, or issues that are heavily debated in the religious limelight? It seems to me (being quite left winged) that they are still caught up a bit in the past, taking theology into more account in their general platforms than science.

Brook

For a lot of people, religion is not part of the past. It is very much part of the present for much of the population.

Clancy

Anyone remember that game Taboo? Where you had a list of words you weren’t allowed to use or you lost the round? Political debates and speeches would be much more interesting if they made lists like these for each candidate and if they used any of the words then a buzzer would cut them off.

David

"Simply by examining speech patterns, the researchers were able to predict the political affiliation of U.S. Senators with 94% accuracy."

You can tell what people think just by listening to what they say? Incredible!

robyn ann goldstein

No wonder i cannot remember ever using these words. With over-use, the impact becomes obsolete.

James Briggs

Simply by examining speech patterns, the researchers were able to predict the political affiliation of U.S. Senators with 94% accuracy. I guess no one every heard of confounding variables. They never heard of Red states and Blue states. News department in radio and TV stations have standards that match the language that Democrats use because the biggest media markets are blue states. Red staters running for congress sometime go out of their way to use the language of the Red states. I remember how embarrassing it was when people assumed that everyone with a Southern accent hated blacks and now the same idea has come to the fore again.

James Briggs

“….key issues discussed by liberals are energy and the environment (or alternative energy), corporate interests and lobbying, health care, inequality and education. For conservatives, the key issues discussed are taxation, abortion, stem cell research, family values, defense, and (to a lesser extent) government administration.”

Democrats gain when they talk about certain issues regardless of the issue or the out come. Obama killing Osama helped the Republicans because defense is a Republican issue. If a Republican talked about education the Democrats gain.

They talk about what helps them not about where they stand.