The relationship between the media and democracy has historically been symbiotic: changes in how society consumes media tends to alter the ways in which citizens engage with democracy.
Social media has provided a new medium for consumption of information as well as means for political figures to engage with the public - the ascendancy of populist figures such as Donald Trump highlights the real-world impact of these trends.
In a moment defined by rising political tensions and differing perceptions of truth – exacerbated by partisan news organisations and conflicting spins of the truth online – understanding media consumption provides a path to understanding trends in American politics. Media provides information and ultimately influences people’s voting intentions, especially in a news environment that is already politically charged.
In order to understand the full picture of the trajectory of American politics, we must understand how Americans engage with news. As we leave another election period, it is worth reflecting on what the evidence actually says about where and how most Americans get their news and what this says about modern digital led democracies.
1. Digital devices are the main way people access news, but social media is not the most popular way of accessing it – news brands are still important
Before social media, the day’s news agenda was largely decided by a small editorial elite at major news outlets. Whereas now, the prevalence of social media as a news source demonstrates that editorial narratives are decided as much by social media algorithms as they are the traditional purveyors of news. But irrespective of whether people get their news from news websites, search or social media, the role of news brands is still significant for readers.
The role of traditional news providers as producers of news has not diminished as much as their role as editors and curators of the agenda. The substance of newspapers is still important in what people consume, but the kind of news people see is no longer solely decided by newspapers.
Though digital devices are by far the most common way Americans access their news, where they get that news on their devices is divided among a number of different pathways. News websites, apps and search engines are the digital pathways most Americans get news from at least sometimes. 63% at least sometimes get news from news website or apps, 60% from search and 50% from social media, according to analysis done by Pew Research. In the US, nearly a third of Americans regularly get news on Facebook (31%), and this outpaces all other social media sites.
Most individuals using social media are not doing so with the purpose of consuming news, though less than half of users on Facebook, and roughly a third of those on Instagram, YouTube and TikTok regularly get news from the site. This is closer to half for Twitter. Consuming such news via social media can be thought of in two main concepts. First, ‘incidental exposure’, where people are shown news articles when they are using social media platforms for other reasons. And second, ‘automated serendipity’, where algorithms surface news from outlets people would not normally use.
2. Individual journalists are now more significant than in a pre-internet age, and these journalists are generally partisan
Explicitly opinionated and partisan journalists carry an enormous amount of influence in the US media landscape, especially in comparison to other countries. In the US, the most mentioned journalists by people are all partisan journalists (74% are political) in contrast to the UK where they are generally independent or impartial (38% are political). News brands still galvanise more attention (37%) online, but 21% - a fifth – pay most attention to journalists.
In a pre internet era, journalists’ careers were tied to the outlets they works for, but the rise of social media has allowed many individual journalists - and other varieties of ‘political influencers’ - to build their own profiles independent of particular news brands.
This highlights the contrast with countries that have strong national media brands with strict impartiality rules - such as the BBC in the UK or ARD News in Germany. Whereas in the US, news is much more of a commercial venture, with business models that are somewhat reliant on controversy and strong journalistic personalities. The US is also unable to enforce impartiality due to the constitution. This is similarly compounded by social media platforms, whose business models and algorithms reward engagement thus giving a stronger platform to contention.
This also demonstrates the importance of cable TV in engaging Americans with news personalities. They may follow up these interests through digital channels, but cable personalities remain memorable to audiences and likely create the interest in the first instance. When asked to name journalists they regularly pay attention to, 74% were from broadcast TV or radio, 17% from online/other and only 9% from print, according to Reuters
3. The media is politicised, but not completely polarised
While it is true that the US has a higher level of news polarisation than the UK, Germany or Norway, Reuters also found that it has barely increased since 2016 despite the turbulent political landscape. It has not increased substantially, if at all, in the last six years.
Political polarisation is often characterised as one of the major problems democracies face in an increasingly digital landscape. Indeed the Economist Intelligence Unit’s annual Democracy Index identified political polarisation as the biggest threat to US democracy - differences of opinion in the US have evolved into political sectarianism and institutional gridlock. It would therefore be logical to assume this is also reflected in news consumption patterns, given the ascendancy of partisan news media in the US in particular.
But across all four countries, news audience polarisation has changed by 3 percentage points or less since 2016, indicating only minimal shifts in audience behaviour. What’s more, Reuters have calculated a ‘theoretical maximum’ of news polarisation. This found that even in the USA, news polarisation is far from the theoretical limit (34%). This should not foster any complacency however, Germany is at 10% of the theoretical limit.
The main difference in the US is that there is no large outlet that appeals to the average political leaning of the population, whereas Germany, Norway and the UK all have public service media, such as the BBC, to anchor their news landscape. Most of the major news brands appeal more to left of centre leaning audiences (New York Times, CNN) with Fox News one of few outlets on the right
4. While news polarisation is not growing, it has exacerbated pre existing differences of opinion on particular policy areas - such as climate change
Of all the markets Reuters studied across the world, the US expressed the lowest interest in climate change news. Polarisation is considered, at least in part, to drive this relative disinterest. There is a 41 percentage point gap between those on the left interested in climate change news and those on the right. This is quite the contrast to countries with high levels of interest, where there is significantly less left-right polarisation.
In the US, 55% of those with with a left political leaning are interested in climate change news, versus only 14% of those with a right political leaning. Whereas within countries with the highest levels of interest, there is less left-right polarisation, such as Greece (a 16 percentage point gap) and Portugal (10 percentage point gap).
This is one issue that could be particularly impacted by a political shift in the House of Representatives. Though climate policy garners widespread support across congressional districts, legislation meant to address it remains quite partisan – meaning a shift to a Republican majority would jeopardise the ability for Congress to enact pro-climate policy.
Interest is highest in several Latin American, Southern European and Asia Pacific markets. Just over half of respondents in Greece (53%), Portugal (53%), Chile (52%) and the Philippines (52%) say they are interested in news about climate change and the environment. Interest is lower in Northern and Western European markets such as Norway (33%) and France (36%). Whereas the US has 30% interest. Compounded by the economic climate, it is therefore not surprising that climate has not been a prevalent issue in regards to voting intention in this election.
5. There are generational disparities in what is perceived as a trusted source of information
For the average American adult, trust in major news sources has declined since 2016, but trust in news obtained on social media has remained roughly the same. According to a Pew Research study, in 2022, 71% of U.S. adults said they trust local news organisations, 61% trust national news, and 33% trust news from social media sites. However, for Americans under 30, this gap closes considerably, with 56% trusting national news sources and 50% trusting social media.
This is intuitive when looking at the medium of choice for news consumption across age groups. When surveyed, 44% of American young adults (ages 18-29) say that they get news from television, compared to 74% of adults aged 50-64. And, while digital sources are a popular medium across age groups, there are additional differences in what generations mean when they refer to digital platforms. When looking at all age groups, a higher percentage of American adults over 30 get news from websites or apps of news organisations than on social media or other digital platforms such as search engines or podcasts. For the 18-29 year old demographic, the most common digital media for news consumption is social media, with 76% of respondents saying they use social media for news.
To some degree, this is reflective of what different generations expect from informative content. A 2019 Reuters study found that in contrast to the mentality of traditional media which seeks to inform based on what you “should know”, younger audiences see news as what is useful, interesting, or fun to know. Social media allows for this while also curating news to the type of content which is relevant to the lives and experiences of young people, cutting out the perceived need to seek out news elsewhere when it can be integrated into the experience of interacting with friends and online communities.
Research note: We obtained much of the data and analysis included in this article from Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2022 and Pew Research Center.