February 5, 2000

The Tough Job of Communicating with Voters

Sources for Campaign News

Fewer Turn To Broadcast TV and Papers

While television continues to be the principal source of campaign news for a large majority of Americans, the percentage of people relying on either network (24%) or local television (25%) to keep up with the campaign has fallen over the past four years (down from 39% and 34%, respectively, in April 1996).

The decline in network news as a primary source of campaign information is greatest among Americans over the age of 50, dropping 26 percentage points from 1996, with Democrats and African-Americans also showing sharp drop-offs. The largest decline in the use of local news for campaign information is among those with family incomes of between $20,000 and $50,000 a year. (See trend table, p. 16)

By contrast, the number of people who turn to cable for election news has risen in the past four years, with nearly one-third (31%) of the public saying they get most of their campaign news from cable outlets, up from 23% in April 1996. Americans with some college education have increased their use of cable the most, with their percentage rising from 24% to 38%. Similar gains are also evident among Independents and those 50 to 64 years old.

Newspapers, once the principal source of news about presidential elections for many Americans, now serve fewer than one-third (31%) of the public (down from 48% four years ago). This decline, while evident across all demographic groups, is particularly high among those with middle- and lower-incomes, as well as blacks and middle-aged Americans.

The decrease in newspaper use is principally among people who name newspapers second when asked to identify their main sources of election news (16% down from 35%). The percentage mentioning newspapers first has changed little over four years (15% today vs. 13% in 1996).

Overall, fewer people report using the radio as a source of campaign news today (12%) than did in 1996 (21%), though like newspapers, this decline is primarily among those mentioning it second. The number who keep informed mostly from magazines remains small (3% compared to 6%).

The number of Americans who get most of their campaign news from the Internet is up from four years ago, with 6% getting news about the election online today, compared to just 2% in 1996. Among those who go online, more than one-in-ten (12%) cons
ider the Internet their primary source, about the same number who rely on radio. Fewer people who go online depend on local TV for campaign news (20%) than those who do not go online (30%).

Blacks Turn to Local TV

White and black Americans differ in the media they rely on for news about the presidential campaign. Nearly one-third of whites consider newspapers their primary source of campaign news, compared to 20% of African-Americans. More than one-third (36%) of blacks say they turn to local television for news about the election, more than any other news source, compared to 23% of whites. Whites are slightly more likely to get most of their campaign news from network TV than are blacks (25% vs. 16%).

Americans under age 30 are most dependent upon cable news for information about the elections (29%), with 27% relying on local television. Just one-in-five younger Americans get most of their election news from either newspapers (21%) or network news (22%). By contrast, 39% of those age 50 and older get most of their political news from newspapers; 34% in this group rely on cable for news about the presidential elections, with one-in-four depending on either local (26%) or network news (25%).

Wide Variety of Sources

While people get most of their election news from broadcast television, newspapers and cable, they tap a wide variety of media outlets to learn about the presidential campaign and the candidates. For example, nearly one-in-three people say they regularly learn about the campaign from TV news magazines (29%). Smaller percentages of people learn something about the election from political shows on network television (15%) and cable (14%), news magazines (15%) and talk radio (15%). Slightly more Republicans (20%) than Democrats (13%) say they regularly learn about the presidential elections from talk radio.

One-in-ten (12%) Americans say public broadcasting programs on television or radio regularly inform them about the candidates or campaign. Nearly one-in-five Independents (17%) and 14% of Democrats say they regularly learn about the election from public television shows such as The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, compared to 9% of Republicans.

Young People Learn From Late Night

Nearly one-in-ten Americans (9%) say they regularly learn something about the presidential campaign from late night talk shows, such as those hosted by Jay Leno and David Letterman. That is only a slight increase from four years ago, when 6% reported being regularly informed by such programs. Slightly fewer people (6%) say they regularly pick up election news from other comedy programs, like Saturday Night Live and Politically Incorrect, while 5% say the same about MTV.

But far more young people than older Americans say they sometimes learn something about the campaign from these sources. Nearly half (47%) of those under age 30 are informed at least occasionally by late night talk shows (13% regularly and 34% sometimes), with significant numbers saying the same of comedy shows (37%) and MTV (25%). Nearly one-in-four blacks (22%) report being regularly informed about the upcoming elections from the late night shows, compared to 8% of whites.

Just 7% of the public learns about the campaign from religious radio (compared to 6% in 1996), although 15% of white Evangelical Protestants say they gain information about the election from religious radio programs on a regular basis.

Activists Informed by Newspapers

Most people who are active in politics regularly learn about the campaign from newspapers (63%), compared to just 35% of voters who have not attended a political party meeting or function in the past. Party activists are much bigger consumers of cable news; nearly half (49%) say they regularly learn about the presidential election from cable outlets, while just one-third of those not active in the parties say the same.

Those involved in party politics are also more likely to turn to outlets less commonly used by the public at large. For example, roughly one-in-four party activists regularly learn about the election from news magazines, network Sunday morning talk shows and political talk shows on cable, while only about 15% of those not involved report the same. Similarly, consumption of political news from public television and C-SPAN is nearly twice as high among party activists (20% and 15%, respectively) than non-activists (11% and 8%).

Marginal Voters Use News Magazines

Like the party activists, those who are most likely to cast ballots in the upcoming election use different media outlets than others who are less likely to vote. These highly likely voters also learn the most from newspapers — six-in-ten say they regularly get news about the campaigns from their daily papers.

By contrast, registered voters who are somewhat less likely to vote this year — the portion of the population crucial to the turnout level and voter composition — get most of their news from broadcast television (50% local and 48% network). Only 38% say they are informed by newspapers, slightly less than the number who identify cable (41%).

These marginal voters are the biggest consumers of magazines: they gather more campaign news from network TV magazines (36%) and print news magazines (25%) than even the very likely voters (30% and 18%, respectively). Just 12% in this group reports using the networks’ Sunday morning talk shows to keep them up to date on the campaign, half the number of very likely voters (25%).

Who’s Most Knowledgeable?

People who regularly learn about the presidential campaign from news magazines and public television are the most knowledgeable about politics. Around half of consumers of news from these outlets (50% and 46% respectively) know a great deal about the candidates and their backgrounds. Newspaper readers and those who go online for campaign information are nearly as informed; 40% in both of these categories are very knowledgeable.

Among the least informed are those who regularly learn about the elections from religious radio or late night television: just 16% and 20%, respectively, know a great deal about the candidates. Indeed, nearly half of those who get campaign news from religious radio (43%) or late night television (45%) know little or nothing about who is seeking the Democratic and Republican party nominations or their backgrounds.