© Josh Sager – December 2014
The Pew Research group has a great reputation for non-partisan and accurate public polling and political analysis. In fact, it was tied as the most accurate polling organization in the 2012 elections. Given their history of success, it is reasonable to have confidence in the results of their polling, particularly in issues where partisanship is an issue.
Last month, Pew released an exceptional report, detailing the news media habits of Americans based upon their partisan affiliation. Pew polled a large number of Americans to determine their political leanings and news consumption habits. The results of this study were, while not surprising, extremely revealing and informative.
The Conservative Media Bubble
The Pew study concluded that conservatives differ dramatically from liberals and moderates in their news media consumption habits. Moderates and liberals trust a much wider range of sources than conservatives. Similarly, from among the news sources that they trust, conservatives watch/listen to fewer sources while moderates and liberals access a much wider range.
The following graph was made by Pew to communicate their findings in regard to which news sources are trusted by partisans:
As you can see, liberals and moderates trust an extremely wide range of media sources (represented by the large red block on the left hand side of the graph). Conversely, conservatives rely upon a relative few sources, most of which are ones that are completely distrusted by non-conservatives (ex. Fox, Drudge, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, The Blaze and Breitbart). The only media organization that highly conservative Americans trust that is similarly trusted by moderates and liberals is The Wall Street Journal.
The following graph gives the distribution of media viewership in relation to partisanship:
This graph shows a consistent trend, where conservatives rely on a much smaller range of sources as their primary sources of information. Approximately 78% of conservatives use Fox News as their primary news source, while there is no corresponding dominant source for other demographics. Conversely, the largest news source for liberals is CNN, acting as the primary news source for 35% of the liberal population.
The media consolidation in the right wing creates a situation where conservatives are far more reliant upon the accuracy of one primary news source than moderates or liberals—they only listen to one source, so it is unlikely for them to have false information (intentionally or unintentionally propagated) corrected by another source.
This lack of a safety net in the conservative media that could catch false information is particularly destructive when Fox News is the primary news source that might need to be corrected. It is long-established that Fox News is an extremely partisan organization that breeds ignorance. Several studies have shown that Fox viewers are the least informed media demographic who, on average, know less than individuals who don’t watch ANY news. Additionally, leaks have indicated that Fox executives have intentionally skewed the coverage time and content in order to attack non-conservatives and support the Republican Party.
The media bubble created by Fox News encompasses a vast majority of the conservative population and ensures that they are often operating with a completely different set of facts than the rest of the country.
In the past, I have often assumed that conservatives willfully disregard the facts in a disingenuous attempt to prop up a world view that they know is false. However, this study tends to indicate that many American conservatives aren’t being disingenuous when they make their nonsensical arguments; they are simply living in a world where their perceptions are skewed by the small cabal of intensely partisan and disingenuous sources that they rely upon for information. In effect, even if conservatives are entirely rational in their decision-making, they are still making seriously flawed choices because they have a warped perception of reality.
If this were not the case, and people who are currently conservatives actually had access to more accurate information, I think that there would be far fewer conservatives in our politics. This isn’t to say that everybody would be liberal, but merely that we would have far fewer arch-conservatives like Ted Cruz and more moderate conservatives like Olympia Snow.
Unfortunately, this is unlikely as the current media situation creates a truly toxic partisan catch-22. In order for moderates and liberals to make conservatives rejoin objective reality, they must first find a way to penetrate the media bubble that has captured American conservatism. Obviously, this is extremely difficult, as the right wing only trusts the sources that have a vested interest in lying to them and there simply aren’t any neutral sources that have the pull to sway conservatives away from their core sources.