Study Suggests Online News Not a Major Contributor to Partisan News Consumption

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With the rise of digital platforms as a major distribution channel for news, concerns about “filter bubbles” and “echo chambers” – a phenomenon that occurs when platforms’ algorithms only serve readers content that they already agree with – have arisen. As more and more news consumers get information online, the scholarly community has worked to investigate the impact of this shift and the degree to which it perpetuates partisan viewpoints due to the lack of visibility of alternative perspectives. A study published in the journal Science Advances in 2022 added new data to the field and suggests that unlike TV, online news is not a major driver of partisan news consumption.

The cross-disciplinary study, conducted by researchers in the fields of communications, computer science and economics, set out to understand where TV news consumption fits into the question of American news consumption and partisanship. As the report explains, “What is missing from this debate is a broader view of partisan audience segregation that includes the Internet but recognizes that the modal American experience of news cannot be adequately described or explained based on online behavior alone.” With 64 percent of Americans saying they get their news from TV sometimes or often in 2021, according to the Pew Research Center, this inclusion is vital.

At the highest level, the finding suggests that concerns about partisan news consumption should focus on TV rather than online sources. The researchers declare that “while only a minority of TV viewers are part of a partisan-segregated news audience, this minority is far larger and far more internally consistent than what has been found in the online media environment.”

Four key data points underline this finding:

  • About 17 percent of Americans are partisan-segregated via TV—roughly four times as many as are partisan-segregated via online news consumption.
  • TV news consumers are several times more likely to maintain their partisan news diets month-over-month.
  • TV viewers’ news diets are far more concentrated on preferred sources, while even partisan online news audience members tend to consume from a variety of sources.
  • Partisan cable news audiences are growing even as the whole TV news audience is shrinking.

Publishers working in non-TV media should pay close attention to these findings. As online news consumption continues to grow, people who get their news there will likely continue to get information from across the ideological spectrum. Companies that invest in gathering and producing unbiased news are continuing to meet their responsibility to the American public.

Though many detractors of the legacy news industry attack its supposed “partisanship,” these findings suggest that high-quality news, when consumed online, provides a more balanced view of major issues. The results also suggest that the digital platforms through which most Americans find their news should promote quality journalism sources further. Online news distribution, so often algorithmically managed, could be used to fight partisan segregation, if the online platforms would use their power to promote real, unbiased news sources.

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