America’s partisan divide is becoming more pronounced, and cable news is stoking these divisions even more than social media, according to a new study that tracked the news consumption of tens of thousands of people over four years.
While much has been written about the dangers of echo chambers online, researchers found that TV news is a much bigger factor when it comes to polarization. To be considered politically polarized for this study, 50 percent of a person’s news diet had to be composed of partisan-based content.
Using that criteria, the study found that 17 percent of Americans are politically polarized thanks to their TV news consumption, which may not sound like a lot, but it’s four times more than people polarized by social media and online news. It’s also potentially a significant number in a close election since these viewers are more likely to vote. Also troubling, this partisan audience is becoming increasingly influential, according to researcher Homa Hosseinmardi.
“Although the overall TV news audience is shrinking, the partisan TV news audience is growing,” says Hosseinmardi in a NiemanLab article. “This means that the audience as a whole is in the process of being ‘distilled’— remaining TV viewers are growing increasingly partisan, and the partisan proportion of TV news consumers is on the rise.”
Cable news outlets like Fox News, MSNBC and CNN are catering, in varying degrees, to these hardcore viewers, which can lead to a silo effect in which people only watch news that confirms their preexisting worldview. These news silos insulate viewers from opposing points of view, leaving them in a feedback loop that reinforces their partisan opinions.
Given this siloed news landscape, it’s not surprising that Americans are sharply divided on which news organizations they trust. In fact, according to a YouGov poll, the only news outlet that a majority of Americans do trust is— the Weather Channel. PBS is in second place but trusted by only 41 percent of the public and the BBC by just 39 percent. CNN is the 8th most trusted but also the most polarized news outlet, with two-thirds of Democrats calling it trustworthy compared to only 11 percent of Republicans. That 55-point divide is the biggest of all and unlikely to shrink because partisan TV viewers rarely stray from their favorite news network.
So how can you resist the pull of these news silos?
Your first defense is to take an inventory of the news you are regularly consuming. A one-day, honest news audit can be quite revealing. You may think you are consuming news from reliable sources that represent multiple perspectives, but to make sure, compare your list to this Media Bias Chart from Ad Fontes. This two-dimensional taxonomy of news outlets measures bias on the x-axis and reliability on the y-axis.
If most of your news outlets fall to one side or near the bottom of the chart, consider adding some more reliable sources or viewpoints, or check out the Associated Press and Reuters, two of the highest rated, most trustworthy and neutral news organizations at the top of the chart. There’s also an interactive chart where you can look up sources that are not displayed on this default chart.
If you’d like to see the same story covered from all angles, spend some time on websites like Allsides.com that offer news coverage of current events from the left, right and center.
If you’ve spent any time in a news silo, changing up your news diet won’t be easy. Hearing your favorite anchors and reporters frame stories in ways that conform to your worldview is quite pleasant, but the threat is real. For a democracy to function properly, citizens must agree on a common set of facts before forming opinions and voting in elections. It is incumbent on you, the news consumer, to seek out those facts and other points of view to come to your own, informed conclusions.