The partisan segregation among the TV audience goes even further than left-wing and right-wing sources, we found. We identified seven broad bins of TV news sources and used these archetypes to determine what a typical, unchanging TV news diet really looks like.
We found that compared to an online audience, partisan TV news consumers tend not to stray too far from their limited set of favorite news sources. For example, most Americans who primarily consume MSNBC rarely consume news from any source other than CNN. Likewise, most Americans who primarily use Fox News Channel don’t venture outside of that network at all. This finding contrasts with data from online news consumers, who still receive significant amounts of news from outside their main archetype.
Finally, we found an imbalance between biased TV news channels and the wider TV news environment. Our observations showed that Americans are generally turning away from national TV news in significant numbers — and crucially, this exodus is coming more from centrist news buckets than from left-wing or right-wing. Within the remaining TV news audience, we found a movement from newscasts to cable news, towards MSNBC and Fox News.
Together, these trends reveal a counterintuitive finding: While overall TV news audiences are shrinking, partisan TV news audiences are growing. This means that the public as a whole is in the process of being “distilled”; in other words, the remaining TV viewership is becoming more and more partisan, and the partisan segment of TV news consumers is increasing.
Why it matters
Exposure to opposing views is crucial for functional democratic processes. It provides self-reflection and tempers hostility towards political outgroupswhile only interacting with similar points of view in political echo chambers causes people to become more entrenched in their own views. If echo chambers are really as widespread as… recent attention this could have major consequences for the health of democracy.
Our findings suggest that television — not the Web — is the leading cause of partisan audience segregation among Americans. It is important to note that the vast majority of Americans are still on relatively balanced news diets.
However, given that only the partisan TV news audience consumes more minutes of news than the entire online news audienceit may be worth paying more attention to this vast and increasingly politicized part of the information ecosystem.
Homa Hosseinmardi is an associate research scientist in computational social sciences at the University of Pennsylvania.