Jan 28, 2020

Echo chambers are getting worse

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Over the past five years, Americans have become increasingly polarized in their media consumption diets based on their political affiliation, according to new data from Pew Research Center.

The big picture: It's not just news that polarizes us — it's our culture, too. Other studies out over the past year that suggest that the trend extends beyond news and information to entertainment and leisure.

Driving the news: The Pew research finds that when it comes to news sources, Republicans tend to trust Fox News more than any other news source, while Democrats tend to trust a variety of news sources about equally. Their top choice is CNN, closely followed by NBC News, ABC News, CBS News and PBS.

  • When compared to a similar poll taken in 2014, the results suggests that "Republicans have grown increasingly alienated from most of the more established sources, while Democrats’ confidence in them remains stable, and in some cases, has strengthened," Pew concluded.
  • These results reflect similar findings from a Morning Consult survey last October, which found that the gap between how Republicans and Democrats view national media brands like CNN and Fox News continues to widen.

Entertainment has its own echo chambers, too. A 2019 media impact study from the Norman Lear Center at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism found that even the entertainment diets are becoming increasingly divided between Democrats and Republicans.

  • Democrats broadly tend to favor cartoon comedy, like The Simpsons and Family Guy, more than Republicans, which tend to like shows that put them in a good mood and had characters they could identify with. People in the middle were more likely than both groups to favor programming with educational value.
  • Late night shows, or shows that combine comedy and news commentary, tend to see dramatic changes in their audience's political leaning depending on the host. For example, the study found that NBC’s "The Tonight Show" became more appetizing to the left when it switched hosts from Jay Leno to Jimmy Fallon.
  • Last year, an Axios study of Google interest in two programs — HBO's "Succession" and USA's "WWE Raw" — found that different sections of the country were interested in each show, based loosely on political affiliations that tend to be linked to certain ideologies, such as liberals on the West Coast and conservatives in the South.

The types of media people use also play a role in polarization. Last year, the Reuters Institute of Politics' 2019 digital news study found that left-leaning audiences in the U.S. consume more news from digital news outlets, while news consumers on the right are more likely to consume cable news and print.

  • Researchers from the Reuters Institute wrote this week that generally speaking, partisan news consumers tend to rely more heavily on self-selection of news sources rather than using platforms that let them encounter different news sources, like search engines.

Be smart: One big takeaway from the research is that overall, Republicans tend to be pickier about their media diets. They trust fewer news outlets and tend to enjoy fewer entertainment shows and genres.

  • The Annenberg study suggests that Democrats tended to favor a broader swath of TV entertainment shows than Republicans, while the Pew study suggests Democrats tend to favor a wider set of news sources favorably than Republicans.

The bottom line: Americans are dividing ourselves into informational and cultural echo chambers — and we're just starting to learn how deeply that affects the way we see the world.

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