Yes, conservatives watch Fox – but it's more nuanced than that, survey finds

Polarized media consumption has helped fuel partisanship in politics. But at the same time, a Pew survey finds that Americans – even on the left or right – aren’t isolated in ideological bubbles.

Richard Drew/AP/File
Fox News Channel anchor Shepard Smith, background right, conducts an interview during his 'Studio B' program, in New York, May 24, 2011.

Americans may need a more balanced diet. We’re not talking about food in this case, but about news.

A new survey offers the latest evidence of the polarized habits of media consumers, with many conservatives tuned in to like-minded news outlets, while many liberals do the same.

But the trends are more nuanced than you might think. The Pew Research Center survey finds that Americans – even on the left or right – aren’t isolated in ideological bubbles. More on that in a moment.

Still, the most die-hard fans of Fox News don’t tend to put much faith in The New York Times, and vice versa. On the right, many consumers trust the conservative website Breitbart. On the left, many may scratch their heads and ask, “Who or what is Breitbart?”

What’s especially significant is that the ideological purists – those firmly on the left or right – tend to be more active in voting and in leading political discourse within their peer groups.

So are America’s narrowest thinkers also the loudest talkers? And is this helping to generate the kind of nasty polarized politics – and the congressional gridlock that goes with it – that has characterized America in recent years?

“It’s not a doomsday scenario,” offers Amy Bree Becker, an assistant professor of communications at Loyola University Maryland in Baltimore.

Yes, she says, polarized media consumption is an important concern, helping to fuel some of the very partisanship in politics that many Americans find troubling. Yet Americans on the left and right aren’t walled off from one another in bunkers and silos.

“We're still coming in contact with content that is diverse,” often via social media or in discussions with friends, Professor Becker says.

What’s happened in part, thanks to the Internet, is a proliferation of news sources, Becker and other scholars note. People tend to home in on sources that match their own worldview – perhaps an unfortunate trait of human nature – but the rise of alternative news outlets, blogs, and YouTube channels means more information than ever is available.

The newly released Pew survey focuses on just 37 news outlets, designed to be representative of various types of sources, with an emphasis on big names like CNN and The Wall Street Journal. The survey gathered responses from a representative sample among the 89 percent of Americans who use the Internet.

Some key findings:

Yes, Fox dominates for conservatives. Nearly half of Americans categorized by Pew as “consistent conservatives” cited a single outlet as their main source – Fox News. But their next most-used sources for political news were generic ones (local radio, local TV, local newspaper), not the shows of Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh. Consistent liberals rely most heavily on CNN (15 percent) as their main source, followed by NPR (13 percent), MSNBC (12 percent), and The New York Times (10 percent).

But some liberals also tune in to Fox. In the “mostly liberal” and “mixed” camps of Americans (two of five Pew categories overall), Fox News was among the top four outlets cited as people’s main source of news.

Partisans are discussion leaders. Nearly 4 in 10 consistent conservatives and 30 percent of consistent liberals tend to drive political conversations, Pew found. These people say they talk about politics often, that they tend to be leaders rather than listeners in conversations, and that others tend to turn to them for information rather than the reverse. Only 12 percent of those in the middle (“mixed”) ideological category play a similar role.

People still hear dissenting views. Some 47 percent of firm conservatives and 59 percent of firm liberals who talk about politics say they at least sometimes differ with a close discussion partner. Still, 26 percent Americans who use Facebook admit to having hidden or unfriended a contact because of their political views. This happened most frequently with consistent liberals (44 percent said they had done this), followed by firm conservatives (31 percent).

The Pew report also comes with an interactive view of the survey results.

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