From the Heartland
“How have you been getting most of your news about national and international affairs—from television, from newspapers, from radio, from magazines, or from the internet?” The Pew Research Center, or its predecessor, the Times Mirror Center, has asked this question since 1991 (with the inclusion of the “internet/online sources” option since January 1999.)
The question tells a lot about changing news habits.
A recent line of thought holds that the nation is increasingly polarized, and that this polarization is more and more reflected by where Americans turn for their news. (News outlets’ credibility is also said to be increasingly polarized, but that, to quote the barkeep in Irma la Douce, “is another story.”) Sometimes commentators view this polarization in terms of partisanship, or party identification, and sometimes they look at ideology. They hold that the political factions of an increasingly divided country are turning to different news sources, and some believe this is deleterious for democracy. As University of Chicago law professor Cass Sunstein, among others, has contended, when people rely on narrowly chosen news sources, the kind of common culture that modern democracy needs if they are to be able to seek the middle ground is, if not impossible, very difficult to achieve.
I have doubted this "take" for a very long time. First, if you look at news sources in the nineteenth century—mostly newspapers—they were very often intimately tied to political parties. Hence, people who read newspaper X got, say, the Democratic Party's perspective. People who read newspaper Y got the GOP's interpretation of events. That, with the possible exception of the Civil War (a big exception, I admit) didn't prevent the country from achieving and maintaining democracy.
When I look at public opinion polls today, I just don't see the rampant polarization in media sources that is supposed to be happening.
When asked from which news outlet they get most of their political news, survey respondents have consistently cited television as their major source. Pew Research Center polls show that TV newscasts are typically three to four times more “popular” than newspapers, which are Americans’ second-most favored source of the news. Radio and magazines have been selected by relatively small portions of adults. Just about the only substantial change since 1999 is the growth of dependence on the internet for the news (from under three percent to just under eleven percent in 2005).
January 1999 offers one advantage and one disadvantage as a starting point for tracking trends in news consumption. On the positive side, it is before the presidential election of 2000, which is now alleged to be the pivotal event in America’s growing polarization. Its drawback is that it was at the height of the campaign to impeach and convict Bill Clinton in the Lewinsky scandal. That struggle may have reflected just how poisoned American politics had already become.
According to the data from that month, majorities of Democrats, Independents, and Republicans got most of their news from television. Roughly one-fifth of each group picked newspapers as their chief news source. Nor did partisanship affect reliance on radio or “online sources.” The June 2005 poll also found only small differences between partisan groups and news habits. In neither 1999 nor 2005 was the relationship between partisanship and news habits statistically significant.
Perhaps this question is too coarsely grained. Beginning in January 2002, the Pew Research Center also probed the specific TV outlets people claimed to rely on for most of their news: local news programming and the three networks (ABC, CBS, NBC), as well as four cable news outlets (CNN, MSNBC, the Fox News Channel, and CNBC).
Like the relationship between partisanship and reliance on different types of news sources, that between partisanship and reliance on TV outlets was not statistically significant in 2002. Republicans were slightly more likely than Democrats or Independents to say they relied on Fox News, and slightly less likely to pick local programming. But the differences were small. One-third of Democrats and Republicans selected one of the three networks, as did a quarter of the Independents. Finally, there were no differences in the proportions of Democrats, Independents, and Republicans who said they got most of their news from CNN, MSNBC, or CNBC.
The data for this question from June 2005 do suggest increased polarization, but we’re talking about a matter of degree. Republicans were more likely than Democrats or Independents to say the Fox News Channel was their chief news source (36 percent, versus 14 percent and 17 percent, respectively). Democrats were slightly more likely than Republicans to pick CNN (26 percent versus 17 percent); just over one-fifth of Independents also picked CNN. Slightly over a third of Democrats picked one of the three network news programs, compared to roughly two-fifths of Independents and slightly over a quarter of Republicans. Chi-square indicates these differences are
statistically significant, but measures of association indicate they are
very weak relationships.
We should not lose
sight of the continuing similarities in Democrats', Independents', and
Republicans' media habits.
Two caveats are in order. First, these analyses do not focus on ideology—that is, respondents’ self-identification as conservative, moderate, or liberal, as opposed to Republican, Democrat, or Independent. Although the Pew Research Center did not inquire about ideology in January 1999, the January 2002 and June 2005 polls show that the relationship between ideology and people’s reliance on TV channels was statistically significant. Conservatives were far more likely than liberals or moderates to pick Fox News as their primary source of news. Ideological polarization of news habits grew between 2002 and 2005.
Party affiliation and ideology are increasingly correlated, but the Pew Research Center's June 2005 poll shows the two remain largely independent. Moreover, since most Americans are either moderates or nonideological, focus on liberals and conservatives can distort patterns of grassroots political behavior.
Second, these are analyses of the mass public. It is possible that the news habits of elites—politicians and political activists—are polarized. When the Pew Research Center’s polls are broken into noncollege- and college-educated groups—which is about the only safe way to untangle elite and nonelite groups in these polls—one sees clearer patterns of partisan and ideological polarization in news habits among those with college experience than among those who never went to college.
Patterns manifested by elites are typically less clear-cut at the grassroots. Just as discussions of culture wars—which may occur among elites—are generally off the mark at the grassroots, so discussions of increased polarization in Americans’ news habits may be seriously overblown.
Stephen Earl Bennett is adjunct professor of political science at the University of Southern Indiana.
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