October 21, 2014

Q/A: How Pew Research analyzed America’s polarized media consumption habits

Amy Mitchell, Director of Journalism Research, Pew Research Center

America’s widening ideological divisions are showing up in more and more aspects of American life — from how likely people are to vote to where they want to live and what they want their children taught. And, as the latest report in the Pew Research Center’s year-long series on polarization makes clear, politics heavily influences people’s media habits as well: Americans on either end of the ideological spectrum get their news from very different sources.

We asked Amy Mitchell, the center’s Director of Journalism Research, to discuss how the new report was put together.

The new report finds that Americans on either end of the ideological spectrum get their news from very different sources. The report uses five categories of ideological consistency. What are those categories based on? How do you determine that someone’s values are “consistently conservative” or “consistently liberal” or somewhere in between?

This survey is part of the Pew Research Center’s year-long examination of political polarization, and is a follow-up survey with a subset of respondents from our largest ever survey on American politics who are participating in our American Trends Panel. The first survey utilized a scale composed of 10 questions covering a range of political values, including attitudes about size and scope of government, immigration, the social safety net, homosexuality, business, the environment, foreign policy and racial discrimination. The categories used in the current report are based on responses in the initial survey. Placement on the scale indicates the extent to which respondents offer liberal or conservative views across multiple dimensions. Where people fall on the scale does not always align with where people place themselves ideologically.

How did you determine which media organizations to include and not to include? For example, in the “trust” section, what were the criteria for picking those particular news sources? Why didn’t you ask about local newspapers, radio and TV too?

The list of news sources (37 total, including local television news) was designed to ask respondents about a range of news media, both in terms of media type and audience size. The list includes some news organizations with large, mass audiences, such as CNN, as well as some sources with smaller audiences, such as Politico and The Economist. Most of the sources are drawn from those that we’ve asked about in the past.

We sought to include a range of types of sources in the news media environment – including international, radio and digital news sources. And, as we have in past surveys, we included “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and “The Colbert Report” because our past data show a subset of the public gets news here, even though they are entertainment shows. We also looked at audience estimates and whether the outlets tend to cover government and political news before finalizing the list. Local newspapers, radio and local TV are among the sources respondents could volunteer as their main source for political news. But we did not ask about trust in these sources because they are platforms that consist of many different individual outlets rather than a single outlet. Overall, our list is meant to be representative of the environment for news about government and politics, rather than comprehensive.

And how was “trust” and “distrust” in different news media sources measured?

Respondents were first asked to indicate which of 36 different news sources they had heard of. Then, which ones they trusted and distrusted among those they had heard of (sources not selected as trusted or distrusted are considered “neither”). Thus some less well-known sources have both lower overall levels of trust and distrust. Therefore, we also examine the relative levels of trust and distrust for each source. You can view the full data on trust and distrust for all 36 sources across all five ideological groups in the report. And our interactive tool also allows you to explore this data in detail.

What should we make of news sources that relatively few panelists had heard of?

There can be a number of reasons why a source is less well-known than another. For instance, while about 90% or more respondents have heard of the major network and cable television news organizations, sources that serve niche audiences are less familiar. For instance, Politico — a Washington, DC-based outlet that intensively covers politics — is known by only about a third of respondents. It is important to take this into account when examining the percent who trust or distrust specific news organizations. Some media outlets are better known than others and thus amass trust or distrust across a larger share of the public. And many outlets asked about here are only recognized by subsets of the public, but elicit high trust or distrust from those who are familiar with the source.

Why is most of the social media data about Facebook? 

Currently, Facebook has a much larger audience than any other social media site, including Twitter. Therefore, it is the only one where our sample sizes are large enough to examine behaviors by ideology. Both in overall use and in use for political news, liberals are more prominent on Twitter than conservatives and somewhat more on Facebook, but both social media sites draw many users from across the ideological spectrum. And, our research has found that consistent conservatives who do use Facebook are at least as likely to pay attention to political posts as are consistent liberals — in fact, it is the less ideologically consistent who are least likely to engage with political interactions on Facebook.

What exactly is this American Trends Panel? Is it representative of the U.S. general public?

This year, the Pew Research Center created the American Trends Panel, a nationally representative panel of randomly selected U.S. adults living in households. All current members of the panel were originally recruited from the 2014 Political Polarization and Typology Survey, a 10,013 person national landline and cellphone random digit dial (RDD) survey conducted January 23rd to March 16th, 2014, in English and Spanish. At the end of that survey, respondents were invited to join the panel, meaning that they then agree to participate in future surveys – mostly conducted online — throughout the year with us.

Data in this report are drawn from the first wave of the panel, conducted from March 19-April 29, 2014 among 2,901 web respondents.

Why did you limit the study only to panelists with online access? How might the results have differed if you’d included offline panelists too?

The online format provided us with a unique opportunity to get both a depth and breadth of information about the media habits of our panelists in a way that could not have been accomplished through another mode, such as telephone or mail. Several of the questions used visual elements that could not have been administered over the phone. In addition, the long length of the survey would have made telephone administration very difficult. For these reasons, most of this report is based on web respondents. The data in the report is representative of the 89% of Americans with internet access.

We did ask the 12% of panel members who completed the survey on the phone a smaller portion of the questionnaire and found web respondents are very similar to the total sample in political party affiliation, ideological consistency, political engagement, interest in politics and engagement in political discussion. Demographically, the web respondents are somewhat younger, more educated and wealthier than the total sample. The web sample is fairly similar to the total sample in terms of the breakdown of gender and race.

Topics: News Audience Trends and Attitudes, News Media Sectors, Political Typology, Research Methods

  1. Photo of Drew DeSilver

    is a senior writer at Pew Research Center.

  2. Photo of Amy Mitchell

    is director of journalism research at Pew Research Center.