Newspaper articles about cyberbullying use more emotional language and fear-based reporting than articles about off-line bullying.

A new study by Megan Moreno, MD, PhD, professor of pediatrics at University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, found these articles relied heavily on fear-based words, rather than prevention-based language more commonly used in stories about traditional bullying. The study was recently published in the journal Prevention Science.

Megan Moreno
Megan Moreno

Cyberbullying through social media or electronic communications can be a significant risk factor in depression, substance abuse, school failure and even suicide.  It’s long been known that traditional bullying can produce these negative consequences; but new research shows the growing impact of cyberbullying.

Moreno’s study used the Linguistic Inquiry and World Count (LIWC) software program for content analysis of national newspaper articles covering bullying or cyberbullying from 2012-2017. The study examined at the percentage of represented fear-based words. This included alarmist words such as “epidemic” and “tragic.”  Fear-based reporting tends to focus on negative consequences and often presents cyberbullying as hopeless or inevitable.

The study found that 41 percent of cyberbullying articles used fear-based words, compared to 19 percent of stories about bullying. Aa total of 463 articles were evaluated, 140 about cyberbullying and 323 about bullying. The text analysis also looked at emotional versus rational appeal. Emotional messaging includes words such as “happy” or “angry” versus the rational appeal of facts or statistics.  Cyberbullying stories measured higher than bullying stories for emotional appeal.

“News media has a powerful influence, and this study shows they are framing cyberbullying as something to fear or cannot be prevented,” said Moreno. “We hope these findings may be used to collaborate with reporters to frame cyberbullying as something that can be prevented or addressed.”

The study did show that an equal number of cyberbullying (50 percent) and bullying articles (49.8 percent) were public health-oriented, using words such as “prevention.”

“We’d like to see more words in media stories like ‘prevention,’ ‘safe’ and ‘outreach’ in stories, versus ‘retaliation,’ ‘death’ and ‘victim,’” said Moreno.