Polarized on Political Views — and News

  • March 09, 2015
  • by Paul Farhi

When it comes to getting political news, liberals and conservatives look in different directions.

Editor’s Recommendation

Bridging Differences With Data

by Rebecca W. Rimel

Summer 2014

The Pew Research Center has found, in a series of reports, that Americans have become increasingly polarized in many aspects of life—especially in their views of government and politics.

With these ideological lines becoming more entrenched, Pew researchers explored an essential question: Where do the most ardent conservatives and liberals, as well as those in the middle, get their news and information? The question is especially relevant in an age marked by a growing divide within the media itself, with the proliferation of more overtly partisan news outlets.

The key finding in Pew’s Political Polarization and Media Habits study, released in October: Those at the ends of the political spectrum subsist on very different media diets, with liberals and conservatives drawing news from their own set of sources. Almost half (47 percent) of “consistent” conservatives named Fox News as their primary source; “consistent” liberals named a wider array of sources (NPR, 13 percent; MNSBC, 12 percent; The New York Times, 10 percent) but with little commonality with conservatives.

That is not to suggest that Americans don’t receive alternative news and opinions. A secondary finding in the Pew report revealed that even the most unbending conservative or unalloyed liberal gets news from an array of media sources and encounters alternative opinions on social media or in conversations with friends, family, or co-workers.

“Nearly everybody is exposed to different views than their own,” says Amy Mitchell, director of journalism research for the Pew Research Center and the media study’s principal author. “It’s very hard to live in a true echo chamber today.”

Nevertheless, a third key finding may be the most critical to understanding the impact of polarization on the national dialogue. Despite being a relatively small part of the population—roughly 20 percent—consistent liberals and conservatives tend to drive the nation’s overall political conversation, spreading their views to others and participating more actively (through voting and campaign donations) in the political process. Nearly 4 in 10 (39 percent) consistent conservatives and 3 in 10 consistent liberals talk about politics often, have others turn to them for information, and consider themselves leaders in these conversations.

Pew doesn’t draw conclusions or make value judgments about its findings. But many political scientists and pundits did, renewing a lively debate about the consequences of polarization.

In one commentary, John Avlon of the Daily Beast said Pew’s study suggests that the political hard-core has “essentially hijacked debates large and small by sucking up all the oxygen and exhausting people who have lives and increasingly see politics as an ugly waste of time.” Added Avlon, “If we don’t find a way to reverse this media trend, America is headed toward Tower of Babel territory.”

On the other hand, Dartmouth College political scientist Brendan Nyhan, in The New York Times, presented a less ominous interpretation. One reason for skepticism, he wrote, is that the Pew study is based on self-reported media habits, and “sometimes memories of what we do are different from actuality.” Other political research, Nyhan said, has found that even partisans consume more centrist media coverage, suggesting an even broader awareness of “the other side” than Pew did.

Others question whether one can draw any link between the growth of partisan media and more partisanship among voters (a question outside the scope of Pew’s research). Princeton University professor Markus Prior, an expert on political polarization, says the evidence for such a link is “mixed at best.…There is no firm evidence that partisan media are making ordinary Americans more partisan.”

Prior even rejects the notion that Americans are becoming more polarized.

Instead, he suggests they are increasingly “sorting” themselves into consistent and like-minded camps but not necessarily at the extremes. “Most Americans continue to be moderate or indifferent, not blindly ideological or partisan,” he says. “My sense is that much of this change has now played itself out, and the starker contrast between parties, and their media advocates, will remain for a while.”

Beyond the expert class of political scientists and pundits, Pew had another eager audience for its research: news organizations. The study had some chastening, if not entirely surprising, news for the media about the public’s view of them—namely that “trust” in the media often depends on where you stand on the political spectrum.

Consistent liberals, for example, deemed 28 of 36 news outlets Pew asked about as ones they “trust,” whereas consistent conservatives labeled only eight of the 36 that way. (The Wall Street Journal is the only outlet to achieve more trust than distrust among all groups in the survey).

The media report is based on an online survey of 2,901 members of Pew’s new American Trends Panel, a group recruited from a survey of 10,013 adults conducted early last year.

After it appeared, Mitchell and Pew heard from many media representatives who wanted to know more about their readers and viewers’ perceptions.

As for the “Tower of Babel” analogy, Mitchell says we’re not there—yet. Few people have, or want to, shut themselves off from opposing views. “But it’s one of the reasons why it’s important for us to do this research,” she says. “It’s to understand if we are moving toward a society where it is more difficult to understand the other way of viewing an issue, or to be informed in a different way.

“We’ve now established a tremendously valuable baseline,” Mitchell says. “Hopefully we’ll be able to continue to study this area and look at this trend  over time.”