Americans’ views about key international priorities – and China specifically – differ widely by party, as recent Pew Research Center surveys have found. But further differences emerge within party based on where people turn for political news.
Republicans and Republican-leaning independents who say their major sources of political news are only sources with right-leaning audiences (Fox News or talk radio) tend to be less open to international cooperation and to have different foreign policy priorities than other Republicans. Similarly, Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents who only rely on sources with left-leaning audiences (CNN, MSNBC, NPR, The New York Times and/or The Washington Post) for political news stand apart from other Democrats in some areas, including by placing a higher priority on multilateralism and addressing global climate change. And when it comes to China, partisans in these so-called “news bubbles” on both sides of the aisle tend to hold more negative views than others in their respective parties.
Below is a closer look at these dynamics. All findings are based on an analysis of what outlets U.S. adults said they used as major sources for political and election news in a September 2020 survey. The survey asked about eight different sources of news; outlets are grouped according to the self-reported ideological leaning of their audiences. You can read more about the methodology here.
This analysis draws on a survey of 2,596 U.S. adults conducted Feb. 1-7, 2021. Everyone who took part in this survey is a member of Pew Research Center’s American Trends Panel (ATP), an online survey panel that is recruited through national, random sampling of residential addresses. This way nearly all U.S. adults have a chance of selection. The survey is weighted to be representative of the U.S. adult population by gender, race, ethnicity, partisan affiliation, education and other categories. Read more about the ATP’s methodology.
The categories in this analysis come from research on the major sources Republicans and Democrats use for political and election news in a survey conducted Aug. 31-Sept. 7, 2020. Respondents indicated whether they use eight prominent news sources as a major source, a minor source or not a source for political and election news. The sources are Fox News cable channel, CNN, MSNBC, national network TV (ABC, CBS or NBC asked together), NPR, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and talk radio. (Talk radio examples of Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh were given; the survey was conducted before Limbaugh’s death in February 2021.)
Respondents’ major news sources are grouped according to the political composition of their audiences – defined here as the respondents who say it is a major source for political and election news. A source is considered to have a left-leaning audience if the portion of those who say it is a major source who are liberal Democrats (including leaners) is at least two-thirds greater than the portion who identify as conservative Republicans (including leaners); if the reverse is true, the source is classified as having a right-leaning audience, and if neither is true, the source is classified as having a more mixed audience.
Using this method, two of the eight news sources analyzed have audiences who lean to the right politically (Fox News and talk radio); five have audiences who lean left (CNN, MSNBC, NPR, The New York Times and The Washington Post); and one group has a mixed audience (national network TV, such as ABC, CBS and NBC). (Previous research has found that Republicans and Republican-leaning independents generally use fewer news sources than Democrats and Democratic leaners.)
Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents (Dem/Lean Dem) and Republicans and Republican leaners (Rep/Lean Rep) are each divided into two groups based on which news sources they turned to as major sources for political and election news. The “All other Dem/Lean Dem” and “All other Rep/Lean Rep” groups within each party also include those who do not use any of the eight sources asked about. The portion of partisans in each group is as follows.
While political ideology is also related to which major sources people use for news, the effect of media diet on foreign policy attitudes remains strong even controlling for ideology.
Views of international cooperation
Public attitudes about the importance of international cooperation vary widely within party based on Americans’ news diets.
Overall, Republicans are split over whether the United States should follow its own national interests even when allies strongly disagree (51%) or whether the U.S. should take into account the interests of its allies even if it means making compromises with them (47%). But Republicans who only consume sources with right-leaning audiences are much more likely than other Republicans to say the U.S. should follow its own interests (67% vs. 44%).
Democrats, for their part, are largely united in the view that the U.S. should take into account the interests of its allies even if it means making compromises with them (80% say this). But Democrats who only rely on outlets with left-leaning audiences are somewhat more likely than other Democrats to say the interests of allies should be taken into account (92% vs. 75%).
On a related question, Republicans who turn only to Fox News or talk radio are less likely than other Republicans to say many of the problems facing the country can be solved by working with other countries (20% vs. 36%). Democrats, however, are about equally likely to say this regardless of their media diet: Overall, 71% of Democrats hold this view.
Foreign policy priorities
When asked about foreign policy priorities, Republicans overall prioritize traditional security goals and limiting immigration, while Democrats are focused more on reducing the spread of infectious disease and global climate change. Still, within each party, there are sharp divides in some foreign policy priorities that relate to people’s media diets.
Republicans who only use outlets with right-leaning audiences stand out from other Republicans for the priority they place on protecting the jobs of American workers, maintaining the U.S. military advantage over all other countries, reducing illegal immigration into the U.S., limiting the power and influence of Iran, and limiting the power and influence of China. This group, for example, is 32 percentage points more likely than other Republicans to say reducing illegal immigration into the U.S. should be a top foreign policy priority. They are also much less likely than other Republicans to prioritize dealing with global climate change (5% vs. 19%).
Democrats who turn only to major news sources with left-leaning audiences are much more likely than other Democrats to say dealing with global climate change should be a top priority (84% vs. 66%). They are also significantly less likely than other Democrats to say reducing illegal immigration into the U.S. should be a top foreign policy priority (3% vs. 24%).
Views of China
When asked about a series of foreign countries and organizations – including Germany, the European Union, NATO and the UN – Republicans whose major news sources are only Fox News or talk radio tend to be about as negative, or more so, than other Republicans. Democrats who use only outlets with left-leaning audiences, in turn, are about as positive, or more so, than other Democrats.
The pattern differs when it comes to China, however. In both partisan coalitions, those who turn only to news outlets with audiences on the ideological right or left are more likely than others in their party to have an unfavorable opinion of China.
Republicans who only turn to Fox News or talk radio have an almost universally unfavorable view of China (97%), while this is less the case for other Republicans (82%). Similarly, Democrats who only turn to CNN, MSNBC, NPR, The New York Times and/or The Washington Post are more likely than other Democrats to have an unfavorable view of China (86% vs. 68%). It’s important to note that while more conservative Americans – especially conservative Republicans – tend to have more negative views of China, these media-related patterns persist even after accounting for political ideology.
The same pattern appears again when looking at views of Chinese President Xi Jinping. Republicans who turn only to Fox News or talk radio are more likely than other Republicans to say they have no confidence at all in Xi (70% vs. 53%). On the Democratic side, those who turn only to outlets with left-leaning audiences are slightly more likely than other Democrats to say they have no confidence at all in Xi (37% vs. 32%).
Republicans who turn only to news outlets with right-leaning audiences and Democrats who turn only to outlets with left-leaning audiences are also more likely than others in their respective parties to say the U.S. should try to promote human rights in China, even if it harms economic relations, and that China is doing a very bad job dealing with climate change.
One area where Republicans who turn only to Fox News and talk radio stand out strongly from other groups in both parties is on the question of whether China is a partner, competitor or enemy of the U.S. Three-quarters of these Republicans think of China as an enemy of the U.S., as opposed to a competitor or partner. That compares with only 45% of Republicans with other media diets and only about one-in-five Democrats, regardless of media diet.
Note: Here are the questions about China, the questions about foreign policy, and the questions about media diet used for this report, along with responses, the methodology, and the methodology for the media diet analysis.