It should come as no surprise today that the partisan divide over news is a troubling and significant issue as the United States comes to grips with a polarized political landscape. The data, above, about general differences in many ways offer a path beyond those differences via efforts to increase clarity and transparency, among others.
Our division in this survey, by which we ask people to name a source they follow closely and track their attitudes toward it, shows that trust in general is more nuanced. But there are some basic differences between partisans when it comes to the news that are worth noting.
Keeping up with the news, seeking it out, and using favorite sources
Democrats are more likely to say that it is important to keep up with news and information — a finding similar to that of previous Media Insight Project studies. Yet, people of both parties seek out news in general at similar rates.
This study reveals a nuance that Democrats are somewhat more likely than others to say they read deeply into stories (47 percent for Democrats vs. 35 percent for Republicans vs. 29 percent for independents) and to scan headlines several times a day (46 percent of Democrats, 37 percent of Republicans, and 27 percent of independents).
At the same time, there are no differences across party identification when it comes to focusing on news reporting more than on opinion pieces.
Democrats are generally more positive, even when it comes to their own preferred news sources
Again, this survey finds that Democrats have a more favorable view of the press in general. Six in 10 Democrats have a positive view of journalists as a group, while a majority of Republicans (53 percent) view them negatively, and the largest proportion of independents (44 percent) holds neither positive nor negative views.
We see the same pattern with the view of news organizations in general: A majority of Democrats view them positively, 6 in 10 Republicans view them negatively, and independents are more divided (30 percent positive, 29 percent negative, 40 percent neither).
Democrats are also more likely to give a positive rating to their own preferred source than are other groups. Fully 83 percent of Democrats give a positive rating to their preferred news source versus 66 percent of Republicans and 64 percent of independents. These findings are similar to a recent Media Insight Project study that showed that Democrats find the media they pay for more reliable than do Republicans.
Democrats (54 percent) are also more likely to give a positive rating of journalists they follow — only 36 percent of Republicans and 31 percent of independents do so.
These positive ratings for news media by Democrats also hold true across different media platforms. Democrats are more positive about local newspapers, national newspapers, local TV news, national cable news, broadcast national news, online news websites, public radio, and PBS.
Only on two media types do people across parties agree: All hold more negative than positive views of talk radio and social media.
Partisans diverge somewhat on how they want the news covered, they differ even more on how they think news is actually covered
Underlying varying attitudes toward the news media across political groups are differences in how groups perceive the way news is actually covered and its accuracy.
When asked what type of news coverage they find most useful, Democrats (70 percent) are the most likely to say they prefer coverage that mainly includes facts with some background and analysis. More than 6 in 10 independents and half of Republicans also prefer this type of news coverage. A third of Republicans and independents want just the facts, compared to 1 in 5 Democrats.
The perceived reality of what the news media provides, however, is starkly different among partisans. A majority of Republicans (57 percent) think that most news coverage seems like commentary and opinion, as do the largest proportion of independents (40 percent). On the other hand, the largest proportion of Democrats (44 percent) view most news coverage as facts with some background and analysis.
Perceptions of the media’s accuracy also show a large partisan divide. As 7 in 10 Democrats and a majority of independents (55 percent) think news is fairly accurate, a majority of Republicans (55 percent) say it is fairly inaccurate.
In general, Democrats find it easier to differentiate opinion and news
Across parties, Americans agree that more information about sources is key to improving trust. Two‑thirds of Democrats say it is easy to distinguish opinion from news in the news media generally, followed by 48 percent of independents and 47 percent of Republicans.
Democrats also have an easier time distinguishing opinion from news via their own preferred news sources (83 percent easy), compared to 69 percent of Republicans and 66 percent of independents.
Democrats are more likely than Republicans to say it is easy to distinguish opinion from news for every other news source asked about, except for talk radio, where the two agree — about half say it easy to distinguish. These differences between partisans are present even when accounting for standard socioeconomic variables such as education and income.
Partisans agree that it is difficult to distinguish news from opinion on social media, with fewer than half saying it is easy.
As shown in prior Media Insight Project studies, there is a notable partisan divide in terms of trust in the media in general and even when it comes to partisans own preferred news sources. Democrats are more likely to be trusting in general and of their own sources, and Republicans are the most likely to say their levels of trust in the media have declined in the last year. And when it comes to their own preferred sources, majorities say their levels of trust have neither increased nor decreased in the last year. However, Democrats (37 percent) are more likely than Republicans and independents to say it has increased (28 percent each).
Republicans and Democrats agree that more information about sources is key to improving trust (71 percent of Republicans, 71 percent of Democrats, and 58 percent of independents).
These are sharp differences in general perceptions of the news industry across parties
Varying levels of trust and perceptions of accuracy in the media are shaped by diverging views across parties on general perceptions of the news media. While 56 percent of Democrats say the news industry is headed in the right direction, 77 percent of Republicans and 52 percent of independents say it is headed in the wrong direction.
Further, asked about the role of the media in American democracy, a plurality of Democrats (43 percent) say the news media protects democracy, half of Republicans (49 percent) say it hurts it, and independents are divided (14 percent protects, 20 percent hurts, 63 percent neither).
On the media’s ideological balance, opinions diverge even more widely by party, with 64 percent of Democrats saying it is just about right, but 3 in 4 Republicans saying it is too liberal. About half of independents (49 percent) say it is just about right.
Partisans agree on some definitions of the term “fake news,” and disagree on others
How is the term “fake news” perceived by partisans — do they agree on what it entails? The answer from the survey is mixed. Seven in 10 Republicans and 3 in 4 Democrats agree that made‑up news stories from news outlets that don’t exist constitutes fake news. Similar proportions of partisans also say media outlets passing on conspiracy theories and journalists from real news organizations making stuff up counts as fake news.
The biggest differences emerge on the definition of fake news as unfair or sloppy reporting from real news organizations. A majority of Republicans (55 percent) ascribe fake news to this kind of poor reporting, compared to fewer than 4 in 10 Democrats and independents. Less than a third across parties think satire about current events is fake news, though Republicans are the most likely to identify it as such.
Partisans who selected definitions of fake news are inclined to agree that the issues described are major problems for the news industry. More than 3 in 4 across parties consider four of the five definitions provided to be major problems — made‑up stories from news outlets that don’t exist, outlets passing along unsubstantiated rumors, journalists from real organizations making stuff up, and also news stories from real organizations that are unfair or sloppy. The exception was satire — while 77 percent of Republicans who selected this definition think it is a major problem for the news media, fewer independents (54 percent) and less than half of Democrats (43 percent) who selected this definition agree.
Partisans do agree on some priorities for the news industry, though Democrats place higher levels of importance on several potential media roles
Across parties, people agree that a highly important role of the media is to verify and get facts right. About nine in 10 Republicans and Democrats indicate this is an extremely or very important job of the news media, as do about 8 in 10 independents.
Across parties, the public also places a high importance on fairness, neutrality, and diverse points of view. At least 3 in 4 independents (75 percent), Democrats (77 percent), and Republicans (81 percent) say being fair to all sides is an extremely or very important role of the news media. More than 6 in 10 independents (64 percent), 2 in 3 Democrats (66 percent), and over 7 in 10 Republicans (73 percent) also indicate that being neutral is highly important. Majorities of Democrats, Republicans, and independents think the news media should also try to provide diverse points of view.
Partisans’ views on the importance of some values of the industry do vary to a degree. For example, 64 percent of Democrats think it is extremely or very important that journalists be watchdogs of institutions and people, compared to half of Republicans and 4 in 10 independents. About 6 in 10 Democrats (62 percent) also think it is important for the media to help people understand communities unlike their own, while fewer than half of independents (49 percent) and Republicans (40 percent) think this is important.
Democrats are also more likely to prioritize the media’s role in reporting on solutions to problems in society. Further, while less than half across parties think it is critical for the media to provide forums for community discussions, Democrats are the most likely to say they should.