Pew research suggests news and audiences “politicized”

The latest Pew Research Center report suggests that both audiences and the news that they consume have become more politicized.

In concert with that trend, consumption of news from all major sources (local TV, network evening news and news magazines, newspaper and magazines) continues a steady downward march. Only 82% reported getting “any news yesterday” (online news not included) — down from 90% 10 years ago.

Good news for digital media: online news consumption has increased dramatically, from 13% saying that they get online news three or more days a week in 1998 to 29% in 2004. This could be a factor in the move towards online news sites profitability. I’ll look at the online news audience separately.

Americans are skeptical (cynical?); more than half (53%) agree with the statement: “I often don’t trust what news organizations are saying.”

Other report highlights include:

  • Words or pictures? Education predicts: college graduates prefer words over pictures (55% to 40%) while those with no college experience prefer pictures (64%-32%).
  • Ideological breakdown: According to Pew, the CNN audience is almost identical to the American public in term of ideology. The breakdown for CNN is 32% – conservative; 39% – moderate; 20% – liberal. The FOX audience, on the other hand, is far more conservative than the general public: 52% – conservative; 29% – moderate; and 13% – liberal. Looking at specific shows, 72% of the audience for the O’Reilly Factor describe themselves as conserative compared to 36% of the general public.
  • Party breakdown: Audience differences go beyond ideology to party affiliation. For FOX, 41% describe themselves as Republican; 29% – Democrat; 30% – indepedent or other. For CNN, the numbers are 25% – Republican; 44% Democrat; 31% independent or other. Thus, Republicans were more likely to get their TV news from FOX and Democrats from CNN. Among partisans, these two channels clearly trumped ABC, CBS and NBC.
  • Conservative news sells: The FOX brand of news seems to sell. CNN’s regular audience has declined while FOX’s has increased — the two are virtually tied in this survey (given the margin of error in statistics). This may be explained by the fact that conservatives are more likely to say that they want their news to reflect their own opinions (43%) than either moderates (33%) or liberals (33%).
  • Seeing is believing? Responders who identify themselves as Democrats are slightly more likely to believe news sources than Republicans are with one major exception: news from FOX. Democrats are even more likely than Republicans to believe the Wall Street Journal. What’s needed now is a content analysis of news on these two channels.

    Partisanship is the culprit in the drop in credibility ratings, according to Pew researchers. Even the Wall Street Journal has suffered. In 1998, 41% of those surveyed said that they could believe all or most of what they read in the WSJ; today that number has droped to 24%. Time, The New York Times, Newsweek and USA Today have numbers that are virtually identical (given margin of error in statistics).

  • Newspaper readership: Only 42% of respondants say that they read a newspaper “yesterday”, but 60% say that they read a newspaper regularly.
  • Talk radio: Although only 17% of the respondants listens to talk radio, that audience is “mostly male, middle-aged, well-educated and conservative.” For example, Rush Limbaugh’s audience is disproportionately conservative when compared with America at large: 77% of Limbaugh’s regular listeners describe themselves as conservative compared to 36% of the general public.
  • Gender differences: Looking at gender consumption patterns, men are more likely to read a newspaper, listen to radio and consume online news than women. Women are more likely to watch local TV news, nightly network news, network news magazines and network morning news shows.
  • Hard news: The audience for “hard news” — international affairs, politics, local government, business and finance — is a minority. About 1/3 consistently focuses on hard news and 13% does not follow hard news. This audience is more likely to be male, a college graduate and older. It is also slighly more likely to be Republican than Democrat, although Democrats + Independents comprise 60%.

    Hard news consumers are more likely to read business magazines (68%); read a national newspaper (58%) or listen to Rush Limbaugh (56%); watch Sunday morning news shows (52%) or read literary magazines (51%); and watch the O’Reilly Factor (49%) or Larry King Live (48%). Given the margin of error in the survey, there is virtually no difference in news consumption among major network news sources, CNN and FOX.

Knowledgable Audiences:
Pew reports that the most knowledgeable audiences (based on their ability to answer four current events questions) were regular readers of literary magazines like the New Yorker and Atlantic; 59% of these readers answered all questions correctly.

However, those of us who watch The Daily Show are fairly knowledgeable (47% correct). This audience tends to be younger (under 50) and relatively well-educated — 38% are college graduates. I found the number of college grads surprisingly low.


Results for the 2004 Biennial Media Consumption survey are based on telephone interviews conducted under the direction of Princeton Survey Research Associates International among a nationwide sample of 3,000 adults, 18 years of age or older, during the period April 19-May 12, 2004. For results based on the total sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the error attributable to sampling is plus or minus 2 percentage points. For results based on either Form 1 (N=1,493) or Form 2 (N=1,507), the sampling error is plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Results for the Believability survey, in which respondents are asked to rank how much they believe various news organizations on a scale from 4 to 1, are based on telephone interviews conducted under the direction of Princeton Survey Research Associates International among a nationwide sample of 1,001 adults, during the period May 3-9, 2004. For results based on this sample, the sampling error is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

Links: Full Report (pdf); Questionnaire, Part 1; Questionnaire, Part 2

By Kathy E. Gill

Digital evangelist, speaker, writer, educator. Transplanted Southerner; teach newbies to ride motorcycles! @kegill

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