News media have become ensnared in “a symbiotic circle of mythmaking and manipulation” with government officials, argues Paul Weaver. They need dramatic stories with conflict and quotable advocates to attract readers; officials oblige journalists by fabricating crises.
These trends contribute to the rise of media echo chambers, in which people select news and information sources that share their political views. We use COVID-19 coverage to examine how the press has polarized and politicized public discourse.
How Do People Get Their News?
A wide range of sources provide Americans with news and political information. While online sources are increasingly important, traditional media remain strong. A large majority of those with multiple internet-enabled devices report having accessed print publications or television to get their news in the last week.
Overall, 45% of American adults cite watching TV as their main source of news and political information. This is followed by 7% who listen to radio and 5% who read print publications. However, digital platforms are gaining ground and taking the lead among younger age groups.
While online news websites and apps are the most popular way for American adults to get their political news, a significant number also use search engines, social media or news podcasts. In fact, those who use specialized online news sites report using these sources at significantly higher rates than those who just go to a general website or search engine.
In terms of the specific online sources people prefer, news sites that offer an independent perspective have a high level of trust among all demographics. In contrast, sites that feature a mix of perspectives, including those that are more partisan, have lower levels of trust.
In a time when the internet and social media are expanding rapidly, traditional broadcast and print news sources continue to dominate. Whether through local television newscasts, national network news programs, or 24-hour cable news channels, a sizeable majority of Americans cite TV as their primary source of daily news.
The political news media are sometimes accused of swaying public opinion, but it’s important to keep in mind that they also serve a vital purpose by raising awareness about key policy issues and increasing citizen involvement in the democratic process. The public depends on the news media to inform them about complex topics like national security, tax reform, and international conflict.
Television news provides a unique format for reporting on politics by using drama and conflict to make complex issues accessible to the average viewer. When journalists focus on a conflict between two political factions, they may overlook the real reasons for the dispute. For example, the media’s coverage of the savings and loan crisis hid the fact that the crisis occurred because of institutional mistakes in government financing and the creation of a large deficit.
As news outlets evolve, some are adapting to the growing influence of new media. Digital platforms are able to deliver information directly to individual consumers, without the skepticism or editorial gatekeepers that characterize legacy media. While many of these new outlets have partisan leanings, some are simply creating new forms of propaganda, such as fake news stories that play to people’s preexisting beliefs about politicians and the news media.
Online news outlets are a great resource for keeping up with the latest political stories. Many of these sites feature comprehensive journalism, thoughtful editorials and impassioned commentary. But how can citizens assess and manage the barrage of news to find sources they trust?
In an age of Internet hoaxes and new political administrations that tout their own “alternative facts,” it’s important for people to identify credible news sources. A recent YouGov poll showed that Americans are more likely to trust prominent news organizations than individual journalists or news anchors.
However, these traditional and online news sources still have to contend with the rise of social media and its ill-effects on the quality of political reporting. The popularity of certain personalities and influencers can create political echo chambers where like-minded individuals are exposed to a particular narrative. These online echo chambers have been accelerated by the ease of sharing content via social media platforms and their lack of filtering, fact checking or editorial judgement (Allcott and Gentzkow, 2017).
To counteract this, it’s worth looking for trusted political news websites that offer comprehensive coverage across all major national issues. For example, NPR offers world-class written and audio productions that tell stories other news networks may miss. Similarly, The Hill covers politics from a Washington, D.C perspective and features a thumbs up/thumbs down feature and comment section, although it can become quite partisan at times.
As political unrest, pandemic fears and economic angst grip the world, people are turning more to social media for news than ever before. But as social networks continue to become more open and diverse places for the sharing of information, they must consider their responsibility for regulating the flow of false or misleading content that can be spread through their platforms.
There are stark demographic and political differences among those who regularly get their news on social media. For example, nearly half of the regular news consumers on TikTok and Snapchat are ages 18 to 29, while two-thirds of those on Instagram are women. In addition, those who regularly get their news on Facebook and Reddit are more likely to be Democrats or lean Democratic.
The top topics people ages 16 to 40 say they follow on social media include celebrities, music and entertainment (49%), food and cooking (48%), and politics (46%). These same adults are more likely than those who get their news from TV or print newspapers to trust sources like YouTube and influencers (both at 41%), though they generally have lower levels of confidence in these sources than do traditional news outlets. They are also more likely to believe and share fake news.