4 lessons on how Americans consume political news

Pew report shows how polarization affects media choice and trust

The political information reaching voters becomes all the more important as midterm elections loom. At the same time, news organizations — niche and mainstream alike — have amped up their coverage both from inside the Beltway and on the campaign trail. The partisan divisions between Democratic and Republican politicians are readily apparent in this torrent of political news. How a sharply divided American public consumes it, on the other hand, is less well known.

A Pew Research Center report released Tuesday helps address the question, showing how the wide gap between liberals and conservatives is mirrored in their choices and trust of news organizations. This is especially important on the far ends of the political spectrum, where individuals are more likely to vote and donate to campaigns. The results not only shed light on how people of various ideologies consume political news, but also how various news organizations are perceived from both sides of the public aisle. 

The political media was quick to highlight the report’s findings yesterday. “Liberals live on Mars and conservatives on Venus,” Bloomberg Politics wrote. CBS reported that “there is almost no agreement on which news sources are trustworthy.” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution began its writeup, “the media loves a good story about the media,” a point proven by The Washington Post, which ran three stories on the report: “In the media galaxy, conservatives are from Mars, liberals are from Venus”; “The GOP hates the ‘lamestream media’ even more than  you think”; and “Liberals are more likely to unfriend you over politics — online and off.”

The study, based on an online survey of 2,901 participants, created five categories of ideological purity based on responses to 10 questions about political views: Consistently liberal, mostly liberal, mixed, mostly conservative, and consistently conservative.

Here are a few of CJR’s most interesting takeaways from the report:

Liberals fall in love and conservatives fall in line

Consistent liberals have no groupwide preference for a single news organization, as CNN, NPR, MSNBC, and The New York Times were each listed by between 10 and 15 percent of respondents as their main political news source. That contrasts starkly with consistent conservatives, 47 percent of whom follow Fox News as their primary outlet. Though this far-right group shows distrust of 24 of the 36 news organizations included in the poll, 88 percent of consistent conservatives trust Fox News.

Main source.png

The station is a frequent target of media critics and Democratic politicians alike. Indeed, Pew’s findings show that the cable giant gives conservative politicians and ideas almost unfettered access to the Republican base. This could become even more consequential as elections approach, with the GOP stepping up its anti-Obama arguments, long favorites of many Fox News hosts.

Screen Shot 2014-10-22 at 2.26.45 PM.png CNN matters to the general public; Politico doesn’t

Politico wins the morning — at least inside the Beltway. Despite newsletters scoured by congressional insiders and aggressive coverage that drives discussion in Washington, the outlet is relatively unknown nationwide. A full 68 percent of Americans haven’t heard of the outlet, the survey found, and another 20 percent don’t know whether it should be trusted.

CNN, on the other hand, is the go-to source for political news among consistently liberal (15 percent), mostly liberal (20 percent), and mixed-ideology (20 percent) Americans, according to the report. The cable channel and website is also the most-trusted political news source, with 54 percent of survey respondents saying they trust its coverage. It’s clear from these numbers that CNN’s widely known brand and giant Web presence have more than compensated for a shrinking cable viewership.

Local TV is huge across ideologies

Despite national news organizations’ huge audiences, local TV drew the highest proportion of Americans — 49 percent — for political news in the past week.

Screen Shot 2014-10-22 at 2.27.01 PM.png

If all politics is local, it’s no surprise that viewers most often tune in to hear coverage of local issues. Thirty-nine percent of consistent liberals watched political news on local TV in the last seven days, while at least half of every other group did the same.

Facebook rules the social media discussion

Political journalists may be obsessed with Twitter, though just 9 percent of Web users consumed political news there in the past week. At the same time, 48 percent of internet users gleaned political information from Facebook. This disparity stems, in part, from the latter’s much broader reach. Still, when overall audience is controlled, Facebook remains the most effective social media vehicle for political news.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

David Uberti is a CJR staff writer and senior Delacorte fellow. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti. Tags: