It is not uncommon to see politicians, public intellectuals, and regular citizens blame journalistic outlets for contributing to increasing political polarization and partisanship. Indeed, journalistic media are often accused of “twisting the facts” and “taking things out of context” to either fit a political agenda or to “get more clicks” for their stories.
In fact, a 2020 survey by the Pew Research Center found that 79% of Americans believed “news organizations” tend to favor one side when presenting the news on political and social issues. That belief was particularly salient among self-identified Republicans (91%), but it was also high among self-identified Democrats (69%). The 2020 survey data showed an increase in that perceived partisanship relative to Pew’s earlier surveys, suggesting that those concerns about journalistic media are only getting worse.
Moreover, increased concerns about people living in partisan media bubbles are being borne out, at least in part, according to recent research. A separate survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2020 found that the attitudes and news consumption habits of Democrats and Republicans varied significantly along political lines. Self-identified Republicans distrusted two-thirds of the 30 news sources Pew asked about. Of the 10 remaining news sources, Republicans were more trusting of outlets that media analysts find to be politically slanted to the right, such as Fox News and conservative talk radio programs. Democrats, on the other hand, trusted 22 of the 30 (and distrusted eight of them). Notably, the eight sources Democrats distrusted overlapped with the 10 sources Republicans trusted. This is part of a seemingly growing gap in the news media use habits.
That same Pew survey found that Republicans also consume political news from mainstream outlets less frequently than Democrats. Of the 30 outlets examined, Fox News was the only news source that at least one-third of Republicans had consumed political news from in the week preceding the study. In contrast, Democrats reported consuming political news from CNN, NBC News, ABC News, CBS News, and/or MSNBC in the same week. CNN was the most frequently consumed and most trusted source of political news for Democratic news consumers, while Fox News was the most trusted and most frequently consumed outlet for Republicans.
What is perhaps even more alarming is that none of the 30 sources Pew Research studied in early 2020 was trusted by more than half of Americans. Sadly, this partisan gap in media use and perception is unlikely to disappear anytime soon. In fact, the gap has only deepened between 2014 and 2020. Research from Pew conducted over that time suggests that Democrats’ trust in established media outlets has stood firm while Republicans have become more distanced from — and distrusting of — those news outlets. For example, at least 15 of the news outlets Pew studied were trusted less by Republicans in 2020 than they were in 2014. And their distrust of The Washington Post, The New York Times, and CNN — outlets trusted by Democrats and generally well-regarded by media analysts — grew the most during that time.
These clear partisan divides in American news media consumption and trust are reflected — and influenced — by a variety of factors at national and local levels. It is important to note that politicians and powerful political actors have labeled U.S. journalists ‘liberal elites’ for decades, and talk radio has decried liberal bias in the ‘mainstream media’ since at least the 1980s. Put another way, the discrediting of journalistic actors as partisan agents is a phenomenon that goes back many years.
However, more recently, those attacks have become more common, targeted, and intense. Additionally, they have originated with actors at the highest levels of government. Most notable among these is former U.S. President Donald Trump, who frequently verbally attacked journalistic actors since he was elected. Three months after taking office, Trump called the news media “the enemy of the American People” and “fake news” in a tweet that derided the New York Times, NBC, ABC, CBS, and CNN by name. Throughout his time in the Oval Office, Trump and his administration also prevented some journalists who regularly covered the White House for many years from attending its press briefings, and instead granted press passes to self-described journalists working at highly partisan media who offered favorable coverage. Members of the Trump administration also called journalists “sick people” who didn’t like the United States and wanted “to take away our history and our heritage.”
These partisan attacks on journalistic outlets encourage Americans to question, doubt, and in the most extreme cases, attack news and information that don’t align with a particular political viewpoint. When espoused by powerful political actors, these kinds of sentiments have proven to be contagious. Research shows that people who are exposed to allegations of “fake news” by elite actors (e.g., powerful politicians) both display less trust in journalistic media and are less likely to correctly identify what news is real.
Perceptions of political bias in journalism are also tied to perceptions of general bias. According to a 2018 Knight Foundation study, Americans consider 62% of news they consume on TV, in newspapers, and on the radio to be “biased,” and 44% of it to be inaccurate. The same study revealed that Americans also do not distinguish between bias and inaccuracy, generally finding that the journalistic outlets they believe to be biased are also promulgators of inaccurate information, and vice versa. This lack of trust has negative implications for media literacy. For example, people with more trust in news media are more likely to be able to distinguish real news from opinion.
Over time, audiences have also become conditioned to seek out news from the outlets that align most with their own political views while avoiding those that challenge their beliefs. This behavior is called partisan selective exposure. It creates a pattern in which people consume media content that reinforces their opinions and choose to opt out of divergent perspectives (that could alter their political beliefs). Put another way, they increasingly seek out echo chambers. Additionally, technological actants increasingly make it easier for people to unintentionally find themselves in a filter bubble, with search and recommendation algorithms prodding them toward content that reinforces their existing beliefs. (Consider the YouTube algorithms that automatically queue up a ‘suggested’ video when you finish watching the one you initially searched for. Such recommendations are often toward like-minded content.)
Over time, the exposure to partisan news influences audiences’ voting decisions and their political participation. For example, when audiences read only news that agrees with their political beliefs, they are more likely to simultaneously become radicalized and want to participate further in politics. This, in turn, can create problems for democratic decision-making as highly motivated individuals become convinced that they are right — based on information (i.e., an understanding of the reality) that diverges widely those who do not share their perspective. Such exposure also impacts support for particular policies. For example, a 2021 Pew Research Center study found that Republicans who selected only sources with right-leaning audiences (e.g., Fox News or talk radio) as their major sources of political news tended to be less open to international cooperation and had different foreign policy priorities than other Republicans. On the other hand, Democrats who selected only sources with left-leaning audiences (e.g., MSNBC or The Washington Post) tended to place a higher priority on multilateralism and addressing climate change, relative to other Democrats.
People who consume political news online or from non-mainstream sources are also more likely to believe that news information that reflects their own partisan beliefs is more credible than news that disagrees with their beliefs. Put another way, audiences who prefer online news media are particularly predisposed to seeking out news from confirmatory sources — that is, outlets that reinforce their worldviews. (This is not a function of technology but rather that online spaces offer easier access to a larger number of news sources, including highly partisan and pseudo-journalistic outlets.)
Moreover, through the psychological process of motivated reasoning, highly partisan news consumers are also likely to treat counter-factual information (e.g., news that goes against their preconceptions) as false information. After rejecting that news, those reasoning processes may actually result in the false information becoming more entrenched in their original preconceptions. This presents a significant challenge to correcting inaccurate information, not least by journalistic fact-checking outlets (e.g., Politifact) that have found themselves under increased attack in recent years.
Motivated reasoning has been used to help explain the rapid growth of increasingly partisan news outlets. For example, as people’s worldviews become more radicalized, motivated reasoning pushes them to move toward even more partisan outlets. Indeed, a 2021 Pew Research Center study found that although Fox News remained a primary news source for self-identified Republicans and Moderates, the more conservative Newsmax and One America News continued to grow — and were especially appealing to more conservative Republicans and older, White Americans. (Newsmax and One America News have generally been regarded by media scholars as poor sources of information.)
Of direct relevance to this public perception that U.S. journalistic outlets are politically biased is yet another demographic reality separating U.S. journalists from average Americans: those journalists’ geographical tie to large cities the East and West coasts. According to a 2019 Pew Research Center study, approximately 22% of newsroom employees in the U.S. live in Los Angeles or New York City. New York City alone is home to 12% of all U.S. newsroom staffers. Additionally, scholars have pointed toward an increased focus on national politics among political journalism in recent years (which is emblematic of similar changes in journalism writ large), resulting in much of that journalism originating from Washington D.C.
This coastal concentration is even stronger among online outlets. Forty percent of U.S. journalists working for online-only outlets live in the Northeast. Unsurprisingly, many of the most popular or established digital news sites are headquartered in major cities in that region of the country, such as New York City.
American journalism’s strong ties to the coasts makes sense when you consider cluster theory, which points out the advantages industries gain and make use of when they establish themselves in specific regions. When businesses are clustered together in a specific geographic area, so are their actors, resources, and skills, which combined can promote innovation and give these clusters competitive advantages that make them more productive. However, such clustering also results in problems with representation. Indeed, the U.S. South is very much under-represented in terms of the number of journalists working there.
This tie to the coasts influences U.S. journalists and the work they publish. First, it undoubtedly contributes to the fact that journalists are indeed more politically liberal than the average American. While U.S. journalistic culture promotes the use of procedural tactics to mitigate the impact of that characteristic — such as by interviewing stakeholders on opposing sides and promoting balance — journalists themselves do tend to self-identify with traditionally liberal values.
Second, the realities of life in major cities and industrial hubs is undoubtedly different than the realities of life in smaller and more rural areas. Because of their concentration in the East and West Coasts of the country, journalists may be more likely to reflect a particular cultural experience. This can result in the stereotyping of those non-hub areas (and those within them) and the misrepresentation of their interests, attitudes, and beliefs.
Third, those areas are more expensive to live in than most of the country. Many would-be journalists thus cannot afford to live there — especially when they are starting off their careers and may be applying for unpaid internships. (They may also not want to live in such places.) This artificially limits the potential talent pool for journalists, and tends to systematically disadvantage journalists who do not come from wealthy and/or urban backgrounds.
Finally, this concentration of journalists and outlets on the edges of the country can be a disservice to local journalism. Not only can it result in important local and regional issues being under-covered (or poorly covered) but the perception that journalists in the United States do not reflect their communities can have downstream impacts on trust in local journalism, too, if it is attached to a generalized ‘the media’ umbrella (and it often is). This makes it harder yet for local outlets to attain resources and audiences in today’s media attention economy.
Republicans are less likely to trust (and more likely to actively distrust) U.S. journalistic outlets. In contrast, Democrats are more likely to trust those outlets. This gap has deepened over the past decade.
Partisan selective exposure creates a pattern in which people consume media content that reinforces their opinions and opt out of divergent perspectives. Today, Americans’ news diets differ considerably and are often associated with their political alignment.
U.S. journalistic actors are more likely to live on the East and West Coasts than the average American, and less likely to live in the South. This has raised concerns about the representativeness of U.S. journalism.