Die-hard liberals and down-the-line conservatives have segregated themselves into strikingly different news universes, relying on sources of information that often reinforce their views and discussing politics mostly with others of like minds, according to an in-depth new study.
Although few people manage to live in a complete ideological bubble, the most politically active and aware Americans – the ones who dominate election contests, particularly primaries, and drive discussions of political issues – have gone far in that direction, according to the data from a Pew Research Center project on political polarization and the media.
The roughly 1 in 5 Americans with consistently liberal or conservative views, based on a 10-question scale of political opinions, rely on very different sources of news and information, and nearly all the sources trusted by one side are heavily distrusted by the other.
And on both sides, half or more of ideologically consistent Americans say most of their friends share their views.
Nearly half of consistent conservatives (47%) named Fox News as their main source of information about government and politics, and 84% said they got news from the cable channel in the week they were surveyed.
No single source dominates the audience on the left the way Fox dominates the right. CNN, MSNBC, NPR and the New York Times each were cited by 10% or more of consistent liberals as their chief sources of political and government news. Just over half of consistent liberals said they had gotten news from NPR or CNN in the week of the survey. Almost no consistent liberals cited Fox as their main source of news.
Consistent liberals overwhelmingly said they distrust Fox, and only 3% of consistent conservatives said they trusted the New York Times or NPR.
The survey's finding about Fox's overwhelming reach among conservatives dovetails with a 2012 USC Annenberg/Los Angeles Times poll, which found that nearly half of Republicans turned to Fox at least daily. Because of its ubiquity among conservatives, getting coverage on Fox has become crucial for Republican political candidates.
Among 36 news sources in the survey, including print, online and broadcast outlets, liberals rated 28 as more trusted than not, and conservatives trusted just eight, including Rush Limbaugh, the radio talk show host, and the online Drudge Report.
Only the Wall Street Journal, which combines a mainstream news report with a conservative editorial page, was rated as more trusted than not by people across the ideological spectrum. At the other end of the scale, one source, BuzzFeed, was more distrusted than trusted by liberals as well as conservatives and those in between, although only about one-third of those responding to the survey had heard enough about the site to have an opinion.
About many news sources, liberals and conservatives disagreed overwhelmingly. By 81% to 6%, for example, consistent liberals said they distrusted Fox; consistent conservatives trusted the cable news channel by 88% to 3%. Although only 3% of consistent conservatives said they trusted either the New York Times or NPR, among consistent liberals, 72% trusted NPR and 62% trusted the New York Times.
Among respondents overall, 54% said they trusted CNN and 50% trusted ABC and NBC news. No other sources were trusted by half or more of respondents, in part because many of them were not widely recognized. CBS was trusted by 46% overall.
The Journal's audience comes about equally from each part of the ideological spectrum, the survey indicated. Many other programs, websites and other sources that people use for political information have audiences that tilt strongly in one direction or the other. Nearly three-quarters of the audience for Comedy Central's "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart," for example, holds consistently or mostly liberal views. More than 80% of Rush Limbaugh's audience holds consistently or mostly conservative views.
The polarization of information sources also extends to friends. Two-thirds of consistent conservatives and about half of consistent liberals said that most of their close friends shared their political views. Among consistent liberals, about one-quarter said they had stopped talking to or being friends with someone because of politics. About 1 in 6 of consistent conservatives said the same.
When asked to list three people with whom they discuss politics, half of consistent conservatives listed only people whom they identified as conservative. Just under one-third of consistent liberals listed only other liberals.
Americans who have more mixed political views don't pay nearly as much attention to politics as those on either extreme, don't talk about it as much with friends or family and don't participate as much. When they do seek out news about politics and government, they rely on a more mixed array of news sources, the survey found.
Similar patterns hold true in the way people use social media, the survey found. About half of all those surveyed said that they encountered some news about government or politics on Facebook. But those who held ideological consistent views, either on the right or the left, were much more likely to pay attention to those items.
The ideologically committed were also more likely to see mostly items online that reflected their own views, largely because they are more likely to have ideologically compatible friends.
Among Americans overall, just over 1 in 5 said all or most of the posts about politics they see on Facebook are in line with their own views. But among consistent conservatives, almost half said that. Among consistent liberals, about one-third did.
The Pew study was based on an online survey this spring of 2,901 respondents selected to reflect overall U.S. demographics. The data have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 2.3 percentage points.