January 11, 2004

Cable and Internet Loom Large in Fragmented Political News Universe

Perceptions of Partisan Bias Seen as Growing, Especially by Democrats

Summary of Findings

The 2004 presidential campaign is continuing the long-term shift in how the public gets its election news. Television news remains dominant, but there has been further erosion in the audience for broadcast TV news. The Internet, a relatively minor source for campaign news in 2000, is now on par with such traditional outlets as public television broadcasts, Sunday morning news programs and the weekly news magazines. And young people, by far the hardest to reach segment of the political news audience, are abandoning mainstream sources of election news and increasingly citing alternative outlets, including comedy shows such as the Daily Show and Saturday Night Live, as their source for election news.

Today’s fractionalized media environment has taken the heaviest toll on local news, network TV news and newspapers. Four years ago, nearly half of Americans (48%) said they regularly learned something about the presidential campaign from local TV news, more than any other news category. Local TV still leads, but now 42% say they routinely learn about the campaign from local television news. Declines among nightly network news and newspapers ­ the other leading outlets in 2000 ­ have been even more pronounced (10 points network news, nine points newspapers).

The Pew Research Center’s new survey on campaign news and political communication, conducted among 1,506 adults Dec. 19-Jan. 4, shows that cable news networks like CNN and Fox News have achieved only modest gains since 2000 as a regular source for campaign news (38% now, 34% in 2000). But as a consequence of the slippage among other major news sources, cable now trails only local TV news as a regular source for campaign information. In several key demographic categories ­ young people, college graduates and wealthy Americans ­ cable is the leading source for election news.

In that regard, the relative gains for the Internet are especially notable. While 13% of Americans regularly learn something about the election from the Internet, up from 9% at this point in the 2000 campaign, another 20% say they sometimes get campaign news from the Internet (up from 15%).

The survey shows that young people, in particular, are turning away from traditional media sources for information about the campaign. Just 23% of Americans age 18-29 say they regularly learn something about the election from the nightly network news, down from 39% in 2000. There also have been somewhat smaller declines in the number of young people who learn about the campaign from local TV news (down 13%) and newspapers (down 9%).

Cable news networks are the most frequently cited source of campaign news for young people, but the Internet and comedy programs also are important conduits of election news for Americans under 30. One-in-five young people say they regularly get campaign news from the Internet, and about as many (21%) say the same about comedy shows such as Saturday Night Live and the Daily Show. For Americans under 30, these comedy shows are now mentioned almost as frequently as newspapers and evening network news programs as regular sources for election news.

But people who regularly learn about the election from entertainment programs ­ whether young or not ­ are poorly informed about campaign developments. In general, Americans show little awareness of campaign events and key aspects of the candidates’ backgrounds: About three-in-ten (31%) can correctly identify Wesley Clark as the Democratic candidate who had served as an Army general and 26% know Richard Gephardt is the candidate who had served as House majority leader. People who say they regularly learn about the campaign from entertainment programs are among the least likely to correctly answer these questions. In contrast, those who learn about the campaign on the Internet are considerably more knowledgeable than the average, even when their higher level of education is taken into account.

TV Still Dominates

While cable news and the Internet have become more important in informing Americans about the election, television as a whole remains the public’s main source of campaign news. When individual TV outlets are tested, 22% say they get most of their news from CNN, 20% cite Fox, and somewhat fewer cite local news or one of the network news broadcasts.

By this measure, newspapers, radio and Internet are viewed as secondary sources of campaign news. At this stage, the Internet remains a secondary source ­ even among Internet users. About three-quarters of Americans who use the Internet (76%) say television is their first or second main source for news about the campaign (37% cite newspapers, 20% the Internet). Still, the number of Americans overall who mention the Internet as a main source ­ as first or second mentions ­ has nearly doubled since 2000 (from 7% to 13%).

Bias Concerns Grow Among Democrats

The survey also finds that the nation’s deep political divisions are reflected in public views of campaign coverage. Overall, about as many Americans now say news organizations are biased in favor of one of the two parties as say there is no bias in election coverage (39% vs. 38%). This marks a major change from previous surveys taken since 1987. In 1987, 62% thought election coverage was free of partisan bias. That percentage has steadily declined to 53% in 1996, 48% in 2000, and 38% today.

Compared with 2000 a much larger number of Democrats believe that coverage of the campaign is tilted in favor of the Republicans (29% now, 19% in 2000). But Republicans continue to see more bias in campaign coverage than do Democrats. More than four-in-ten Republicans (42%) see news coverage of the campaign as biased in favor of Democrats; that compares with 37% in 2000. Among independents there also has been a significant decline in the percentage who say election news is free of bias (43% now, 51% then), though independents remain divided over whether the coverage favors Democrats or Republicans.

The survey finds that two-thirds of Americans (67%) prefer to get news from sources that have no particular political point of view, while a quarter favors news that reflects their political leanings. Independents stand out for their strong preference of news that contains no particular viewpoint (74% vs. 67% of Republicans and 60% of Democrats).

With the race for the Democratic nomination about to enter a critical phase, the campaign has yet to break out in terms of public interest. But attention is not notably lower than at a comparable point in the last presidential contest. Nearly half of Americans (46%) are following news about the nomination contest very (14%) or fairly (32%) closely; in January 2000, slightly more (53%) said they were following the campaign, but at that point there were nomination contests in both parties.

The survey also finds:

Political endorsements ­ whether made by politicians, celebrities or advocacy organizations ­ continue to have little impact on most Americans. Moreover, among the small number swayed by such endorsements, the effect is mostly mixed. On balance, endorsements by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and former Vice President Al Gore would have a somewhat negative impact, although most people say they would not be affected either way. An endorsement by a person’s priest or minister is a net positive, but 80% say such an endorsement would not matter (up from 70% in 2000). Newspaper endorsements are also less influential than four years ago, and dissuade as many Americans as they persuade.

Internet users rely on the web sites of major media outlets for campaign news, rather than Internet-based news operations. Among Americans who use the Internet, 40% say they regularly or sometimes learn about the campaign from the news pag
es of web portals like AOL and Yahoo.com, and 38% say the same about web sites of major news organizations like CNN and the New York Times. Just 11% regularly or sometimes learn about the campaign from online news magazines and opinion sites such as Slate.com.

Since 2000, there has been sharp decline in the percentage of Republicans who say they regularly learn about the campaign from daily newspapers, as well as local and nightly network TV news. And with the rise of Fox News the political profile of the campaign news audience has become more partisan. Fully twice as many Republicans as Democrats say they get most of their election news from Fox News (29% vs. 14%). Significantly more Democrats than Republicans get most of their election news from one of the three major networks (40% vs. 24%).

Campaign Interest and Familiarity

Most Americans are not familiar with the ins-and-outs of the campaign. Just a third say they have heard a lot about Al Gore’s endorsement of Howard Dean; another 36% have heard something about it. Even fewer (16%) have heard a lot about Dean’s widely reported comment about wanting to win the votes of “guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks.” In fact, 59% say they have heard nothing about the controversy.

Public awareness of facts about the candidates’ backgrounds also is relatively low. Overall, 31% correctly identified Clark as the candidate who served as an Army general. At about this stage in the 2000 Democratic race, approximately the same percentage (30%) knew that Bill Bradley was a former senator. An overwhelming percentage of Clark supporters (91%) knew that the candidate was a former Army general.

Fewer Americans (26%) were able to identify Richard Gephardt as the former House majority leader. Even Gephardt supporters were not widely aware of this fact; just 36% knew that their candidate had been majority leader.

Older Americans are more knowledgeable about these facts than are younger people, and more men than women correctly answered these questions. Interestingly, nearly as many conservative Republicans as liberal Democrats have heard a lot about Gore’s endorsement of Dean (42%, 45% respectively). But liberal Democrats were far more likely to know about Clark’s background than any other ideological group.

Online Americans Knowledgeable

Where people turn for campaign information makes a big difference in what they know about the campaign. People who use the Internet, those who listen to National Public Radio, and readers of news magazines are the most knowledgeable about the campaign.

About six-in-ten of those who report regularly learning something about the campaign from these sources were able to correctly answer at least one of the two candidate identification questions, and a third or more can answer both. Daily newspaper readers, those who listen to talk radio, and those who watch public television or the Sunday morning political talk shows are nearly as knowledgeable.

By comparison, people who say they regularly learn from late night television, morning TV shows, local television, and comedy TV shows are the least informed. Among these groups, two-thirds or more were unable to answer either of the knowledge questions. Falling in between are viewers of cable news and talk shows, C-SPAN, TV news magazines, and network TV news.

The Internet and Campaign News

While 13% say they are getting most of their campaign news from the Internet, this is the highest figure ever recorded, and matches the 11% found among voters at the conclusion of the presidential campaign in November 2000. In November 2002, as the end of the midterm election campaign, just 7% of the public cited the Internet as a major source. And at a comparable point in the nominating process in 2000, only 6% cited the Internet.

These gains come not only because more people are going online now than in previous campaigns. Even among those going online, the percentage saying they are getting most of their campaign news there has nearly doubled (from 11% to 20%) since November 2002.

About one-in-five young people age 18-29 (21%) say they are getting their campaign news from the Internet, putting it within 10 points of newspapers (30%) among this group. There continues to be a gender gap in Internet use for campaign news, with more men (16%) than women (10%) citing it as a key source.

More people also say they are going online for the explicit purpose of getting news or information about the 2004 elections. Overall, 14% of all Americans ­ 22% of those who go online ­ turn to the Internet with the goal of informing themselves about the election. These figures are comparable to the numbers from the end of the election campaign in 2002. Levels of online news seeking are still below those seen in November 2000, but that was at the end of a presidential campaign.

Learning About the Campaign Online

Overall, the number of people who say they regularly or sometimes learn something about the campaign from the Internet has increased nine percentage points since January 2000, from 24% to 33% today.

In addition, people report learning about the campaign from a variety of specific Internet sources. Nearly three-in-ten (28%) say they regularly or sometimes learn from the web sites of major news organizations, and 27% say they learn from the news pages of the Internet service providers, such as Yahoo and AOL. Fewer than one-in-ten (8%) learn from online news magazines and opinion sites, such as Slate.com.

Relying on the Internet as a source of campaign information is strongly correlated with knowledge about the candidates and the campaign. This is more the case than for other types of media, even accounting for the fact that Internet users generally are better educated and more interested politically. And among young people under 30, use of the Internet to learn about the campaign has a greater impact on knowledge than does level of education.

Coming Across News Online

The key to learning from the Internet is active use. More people say they “come across” campaign news online (24%) than say they go online specifically for the purpose of learning about the campaign (14%); another 24% go online but say they do not encounter campaign news. This raises the question of whether inadvertent exposure to news while surfing can also help people learn about the campaign.

People who go online for the explicit purpose of obtaining election news are relatively well-informed about the campaign. On average, these people show familiarity with two of four campaign events or stories. That is more than twice the score of those who do not go online.

But those who say they simply come across campaign information when going online for other purposes are only slightly more knowledgeable than those who do not come across such news or even those who do not go online.

Internet as a Campaign Tool

For many Americans, the Internet is also becoming an important means of communicating about the campaign and participating in it. About one-in-five (18%) use the web for political activity of one sort or another (among those going online, 30% engage in some form of political activity). The most popular uses for the Internet are to get candidate issue information (11% of the public) and to send or receive emails about the campaign or candidates (11%). Smaller numbers seek information about local groups and activities, visit candidate or organization web sites, or engage in discussions, chats, or blogs.

People under age 30 are more active in using the Internet for campaign purposes, despite being generally less interested and
engaged in politics. About a quarter (24%) say they have taken part in at least one of six online activities, and 17% have engaged in two or more.

Dean and the Internet

Howard Dean’s campaign has effectively employed the Internet as a campaign tool, raising record amounts of money and sponsoring numerous local meetings of supporters. But the survey finds that Dean’s supporters are not vastly different from supporters of other Democratic candidates in terms of their online campaign activity.

Supporters of candidates other than Dean are just as likely as Dean backers to be Internet users. And both groups are about equally likely to say they are regularly learning about the campaign from the Internet. But Dean supporters are somewhat more likely to say they go online seeking news about the election (by a margin of 26% to 19%).

Comparable numbers of supporters of Dean and the other Democratic candidates say they have sent or received emails about the campaign (17% for Dean, 18% for the others), sought information about local campaign activities, engaged in online chats or blogs, or visited candidate web sites. More Dean supporters have visited the web sites of groups or organizations that promote candidates or positions.

Young People Leaving Traditional Sources

The increasing role of the Internet and comedy programming as a source of news for younger Americans comes as they continue to turn away from more traditional campaign news sources.

Four years ago, young people were far more likely to regularly learn about the campaign from network evening news (39%) than from the Internet (13%) or comedy programs (9%). Today, all three sources rate about equally in importance, as the percent citing network news as a regular source of campaign information has fallen from 39% to 23%. The Internet and comedy shows have become more widely used as information sources (about one-in-five cite each as a regular source of campaign news).

Overall, TV remains the main source of news for all generations, including younger Americans. While network and local news have fallen in importance among younger Americans, cable news has held its own, with 37% of 18-29 year-olds saying they regularly learn about the campaign from cable outlets. TV news magazines like 60 Minutes and 20/20 also have grown in importance among younger Americans. Today 26% of younger people cite TV news magazines as a regular source of political news, up from 18% in 2000.

While these changes in the campaign news environment are the most striking among younger Americans, many of the same patterns are apparent among older generations as well. The decline in the percent saying they regularly learn about the campaign from newspapers has been just as pronounced among those over 30 as among those in their teens and twenties. Since 2000, fewer people over 30 say they learn about the campaign from network news, though here the drop-off has been greater among younger people.

Moreover, an increasing percentage of Americans in their 30s and 40s also are turning to the Internet for campaign information ­ 16% regularly learn about candidates and the campaign from the Internet today, up from 10% in 2000. But the Internet remains a relatively minor campaign news source for people age 50 and older. Just 7% regularly learn about the campaign from the Internet today, compared with 6% four years ago.

Comedy Shows Matter

Comedy programs are increasingly becoming regular sources of news for younger Americans, and are beginning to rival mainstream news outlets within this generation. Today, 21% of people under age 30 say they regularly learn about the campaign and the candidates from comedy shows like Saturday Night Live and the Daily Show, twice as many as said this four years ago (9%). (Note: In January 2000, the show Politically Incorrect was listed with Saturday Night Live, rather than the Daily Show.) And this is particularly true for younger men, 27% of whom regularly learn about the campaign from comedy shows, compared with 14% of young women.

Overall, one out of every two young people (50%) say they at least sometimes learn about the campaign from comedy shows, nearly twice the rate among people age 30-49 (27%) and four times the rate among people age 50 and older (12%).

Young people also are much more likely than older generations to learn about the campaign from late-night talk shows like Jay Leno and David Letterman, though there has been no increase from four years ago on this measure. Taken together, 61% say they regularly or sometimes learn about the campaign from comedy and/or late-night talk shows.

For many young people, the content of the jokes, sketches and appearances on these programs is not just a repeat of old information. Respondents who said they regularly or sometimes learned about the campaign from these programs were asked if they ever learn things that they had not heard before, and nearly half said they had learned something new. Put another way, 27% of all respondents under age 30 say they learn things about the candidates and campaigns from late night and comedy programming that they did not know previously.

Age Gap in Knowledge, Interest

Younger Americans pay far less attention to the political campaign, have heard far less about major campaign events, and know little about the candidates themselves. Overall, more than six-in-ten of those under age 30 (64%) say they are not even somewhat interested in news about the Democratic primary campaigns while most people age 30 and over express some or a great deal of interest in the race. And roughly four-in-ten younger Americans have not heard about some publicized campaign events, such as Dean’s “pickup trucks” comment or Gore’s endorsement of Dean. Fewer than half as many people over age 30 display a similar lack of awareness of campaign events.

When it comes to knowing specifics about the candidates, the age disparity is even greater. Of two factual questions (which candidate served as an Army general and which served as majority leader in the House) just 15% of younger Americans could get either question correct (a mere 6% knew both). By comparison, 37% of people age 30-49, and half of people age 50 and older, could answer at least one of these questions.

This lack of interest and knowledge is related to younger peoples’ use of media sources. Far fewer say they learn from traditional news sources, such as network evening news, PBS, Sunday morning talk shows, newspapers or weekly news magazines. These sources are strongly related to knowledge and familiarity with the campaign.

And while many young people say they learn about the campaign from comedy and late night shows, the extent to which they actually gain much information is unclear. Holding constant a person’s education, interest, and use of other media sources, there is no evidence that people who say they learn about the campaigns from late night and comedy shows know any more about the candidates, and are at best only slightly more aware of major campaign events, than those who do not watch these programs.

While late night and comedy shows may not impart much campaign information, the other growing resource for campaign information among younger people ­ the Internet ­ proves to be one of the most powerful tools available. Even when the fact that Internet users tend to be more educated and engaged is taken into account, young people who say they regularly learn about candidates and the campaign online are much better informed about the campaign than those who do not go online for such news.

Interviews, Speeches and Debates

In general, appearances and speeches by the Democratic presidential candidates have resonated with the public more than the eight candidate debates that were held last year.

Just 20% of the public, and only a slightly greater percentage of likely Democratic primary voters (23%), saw any of the candidate debates. Far more people say they have seen the Democratic candidates interviewed on news or entertainment programs (46%) or have seen or heard part of a speech by the candidates on TV (42%).

Most of those who have seen one or more of the candidates interviewed on TV could not recall the specific program on which they appeared. Those who were able to do so mentioned a wide range of programs, including late night comedy and talk shows (10%), cable talk news shows such as Hardball (6%), network evening news programs (5%) and Sunday morning interview programs (5%). Overall, 23% of those who have seen a candidate interview or appearance cited a broadcast network program as the source, while 20% cited a cable network or program.

Interestingly, candidate speeches and appearances were not significantly more visible to Democrats than they were to Republicans, though there is some evidence that opposition to President Bush has encouraged some Democrats to pay more attention to the campaign.

Democrats who disapprove of the president’s job performance were far more likely to have seen or heard the candidates in various venues.

Campaign News Enthusiasts

While the majority of Americans are at most marginally engaged in the Democratic primary process, a small number keep close tabs on campaign news and events. These people have been following the campaign closely, enjoy keeping up with election politics, and are familiar with all of the election events and facts asked about on the survey. Overall, they represent roughly 7% of the population.

Campaign news enthusiasts are roughly three times more likely than those less engaged in the election to cite cable talk shows, Sunday morning talk shows, NPR, PBS news shows, and weekly news magazines as regular sources of information. Fully half of this core group (53%) saw at least some of the candidate debates held in 2003, compared with only 20% of Americans overall. And more than eight-in-ten have seen candidate interviews, appearances, and speeches on TV.

The Internet also stands out as a particularly important source for campaign news enthusiasts. Nearly half (46%) say they have sought out campaign news online, compared with 26% of people who are somewhat engaged in election news, and just 7% of people who are less interested. They are far more likely to go online for a wide range of campaign and candidate information, and to participate in online activities such as sharing e-mails, participating in discussion groups, and looking for information on local campaign activities. The political activity of this core group is not limited to the Internet, as these same people are the most likely to have made campaign contributions, joined political organizations, and contacted elected officials in the past 12 months.

More See Biased Campaign Coverage

While there has been no growth in general perceptions of media bias, the public is expressing more concern about partisan bias in coverage of the presidential race. Currently, just 38% say there is no bias in the way news organizations have been covering the presidential race, down from 48% four years ago. Majorities saw no bias in press coverage of the early stages of the 1988 and 1996 presidential campaigns.

The growing sense of biased campaign coverage crosses party lines, but is most notable among Democrats. Four years ago, most Democrats (53%) said there was no bias in news coverage of the campaign; today just 40% of Democrats take this position, and those who do see bias overwhelmingly see it as favoring the other party.

Republicans, too, are less apt to see campaign coverage as balanced today (33% say there is no bias, down from 41% four years ago).

Americans at either end of the ideological spectrum are the most likely to see campaign coverage as biased, but in precisely the opposite ways ­ by 47% to 8% conservative Republicans say the press leans toward the Democrats, not the Republicans, in its campaign coverage. By 36% to 11% liberal Democrats say coverage tilts to the Republicans.

In terms of media audiences, only people who get most of their campaign news from Fox News or from radio see a distinct bias in news coverage of the election, while Americans who get most of their news from CNN, network news, local TV, newspapers and the Internet are split evenly over whether press bias tilts to the Republicans or Democrats. People who get most of their news from network or local news programming are the least likely to see any bias in campaign coverage.

Overall Bias Perceptions Stable

A solid majority of Americans say they see a great deal (30%) or a fair amount (35%) of political bias in news coverage generally. In contrast with the growing perception of biased campaign coverage, this measure has not changed markedly since January 2000 when 67% saw at least a fair amount of political bias.

Conservative Republicans are significantly more likely to perceive the press as biased in its news coverage than are moderate and liberal Republicans, Democrats, and independents. This ideological difference is mirrored in the disparate opinions among audiences of different news sources.

People who get most of their news from the Fox News are much more likely to say the press shows a great deal of bias than are viewers of CNN, Network news, and local TV news. People who cite radio or the Internet as their main source of campaign news are also more likely to see widespread bias in the media.

Interestingly, younger generations express somewhat less concern about press bias than their elders. Barely one-in-five Americans under age 30 say they see a great deal of media bias in general news coverage, compared with roughly a third of those age 30 and over. More -well educated Americans also perceive the press to be more biased than those who never attended college.

Most Prefer News Without “Point of View”

Two-thirds of Americans (67%) say they prefer to get their news from sources that do not have a particular point of view, while a quarter (25%) say they prefer news from sources that share their political point of view.

There is no significant partisan disagreement on this issue ­ majorities of Democrats and Republicans share a preference for news sources that do not have a particular point of view and an even greater percentage of independents holds this opinion. Moreover, there are only modest differences among news audiences, although people who rely on the Internet are even more likely than those who use other sources to favor news without a particular point of view.

But there is a significant gap along racial lines. African Americans are more than twice as likely as whites (47% to 21%) to express a preference for “getting news from sources that share your political point of view.”

Endorsements a Minor Factor

Most Americans say candidate endorsements by major political figures, celebrities, well-known institutions and even their clergy would not have an impact ­ positive or negative ­ on their voting decisions.

Among 14 individuals and institutions tested, former President Bill Clinton had the biggest impact, but people were evenly divided whether Clinton’s endorsement would make them more or less likely to support a presidential candidate (19% each).

Among other political figures, Gore and Schwarzenegger’s endorsements are seen somewhat negatively, while Sen. John McCain’s is viewed, on balance, positively. But most people say they would not be affected one way or the other.

That is also generally the case for organizations like the Christian Coalition and the AFL-CIO. But among various demographic groups, endorsements from some of these groups does have an impact: 37% of white evangelical Protestants say they would be more likely to vote for a presidential candidate endorsed by the Christian Coalition, while about as many seculars (36%) say they would be less likely to back a candidate backed by that organization.

Men are divided over the effect of an endorsement by the National Rifle Association ­ 21% say they would be more likely to vote for an NRA-endorsed candidate, 18% less likely. But on balance, women view an NRA endorsement negatively (18% less likely vs. 9% more likely). Majorities of men and women say an endorsement by the National Rifle Association would not affect their vote.