June 8, 2004

News Audiences Increasingly Politicized

I. Where Americans Go for News

Americans’ news habits have changed little over the past two years. Network and local TV news viewership has been largely stable since 2002. Daily newspaper readership remains at 42% (it was 41% two years ago). And the percentage of Americans who listen to news on the radio on a typical day is virtually unchanged since the last Pew Research Center media consumption survey (40% now, 41% in 2002).

There are, however, a couple of notable exceptions to this pattern of stability. The percentage of Americans who regularly turn to cable news channels has edged up over the past two years. The overall audience for cable TV news exceeds that for network television news by a narrow margin: 38% of Americans say they regularly watch cable news channels, compared with 34% who regularly watch the nightly news on one of the three major broadcast networks. In April 2002, the two audiences were nearly identical in size 33% for cable news, 32% for network news. So while the nearly decade-long slide in network news viewership may have subsided, the networks now risk being eclipsed by their cable competitors.

The other notable change is a rise in online news consumption. About three-in-ten (29%) Americans now report that they regularly go online to get news, up from 25% in 2002 and 23% in 2000. In addition, surveys by the Pew Internet and American Life Project have found the percentage who go online for news on a typical day has increased by half over the past four years (from 12% to 18%). A more inclusive question on this survey found 24% saying they went online for news on the previous day.

Network News Audience Still Aging

Overall, local television news continues to dominate the American media landscape. Fully 59% of Americans say they regularly watch the local news in their area. This is down significantly from the more than three-quarters of American who regularly watched local news in the early 1990s, but is largely unchanged from 2000.

Roughly a third of the public (34%) now regularly watches one of the nightly network news broadcasts on CBS, ABC or NBC. The total audience for these broadcasts shrunk by about half between 1993 and 2000, but has remained fairly steady since then.

Nearly equal proportions of Americans report watching the individual nightly network news programs: 16% regularly watch the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather; 16% watch ABC’s World News Tonight with Peter Jennings; and 17% watch the NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw. Five percent of Americans regularly tune into the NewsHour on PBS.

As has been the case for some time, network news viewers are an aging group. A majority (56%) of those age 65 and older say they regularly watch nightly network news; less than a third as many Americans under age 30 (18%) regularly watch these news programs. And it is not just the youngest viewers who are tuning out the network news. Only about a quarter of those age 30-49 (26%) are regular viewers. The generation gap for network news viewership, already substantial, has become slightly wider over the past two years.

Cable Audience: Younger, More Republican

Cable news appears to be gaining ground on the networks. The increase in viewership of cable news channels since 2002 has been broad-based. While the cable news audience is slightly older than average, age differences in cable viewership are not nearly as large as for network news. Furthermore, cable news has made modest gains among 18-29 year-old viewers over the past two years. Today nearly three-in-ten young people regularly tune into a cable news channel, compared with 23% in 2002.

The cable news audience is slightly more affluent and well-educated than the network news audience. It also is more Republican: 46% of Republicans regularly watch cable news compared with 31% who watch network news.

CNN has been the dominant cable news channel since its inception in 1980. But since 2002 the Fox News Channel has pulled into a statistical heat as its audience has continued to grow. The Fox News Channel is viewed regularly by 25% of the public, up marginally from 22% in 2002 and 17% in 1998 and 2000. By comparison, 22% of Americans regularly watch CNN today, and there is no upward trend in the size of its audience. Roughly one-in-ten Americans watch MSNBC regularly (down from a peak of 15% in 2002), 10% regularly watch CNBC (down from 13% in 2002), and 5% watch C-SPAN.

Young People Shun Newspapers

The decade-long slide in newspaper readership has leveled off. The percentage of Americans reporting that they read a newspaper “yesterday” fell from 58% in 1994 to 47% in 2000, and 41% in 2002. It now stands at 42%.

Newspaper readership among young people continues to be relatively limited. Among those under age 30, just 23% report having read a newspaper yesterday. This is down slightly from 26% in 2002 and stands in marked contrast to the 60% of older Americans who say they read a newspaper yesterday. Young people are more apt to read a magazine or a book for pleasure on a daily basis than they are to pick up a newspaper.

Readership of news magazines, business magazines, literary magazines, and political magazines is unchanged from 2002: 13% of Americans regularly read news magazines such as Time, U.S. News or Newsweek; 4% read business magazines such as Fortune and Forbes; 2% read literary magazines such as the Atlantic, Harper’s or the New Yorker; and 2% read political magazines such as the Weekly Standard or the New Republic.

Stable Radio News Audiences

The percentage of Americans who listen to radio news has remained relatively stable in recent years. Four-in-ten say they listened to news on the radio yesterday. This is virtually unchanged from 2002 (41%) and down only marginally from 2000 (43%).

Talk radio is holding onto its corner of the media market 17% of the public regularly listens to radio shows that invite listeners to call in to discuss current events, public issues and politics. The talk radio audience remains a distinct group; it is mostly male, middle-aged, well-educated and conservative. Among those who regularly listen to talk radio, 41% are Republican and 28% are Democrats. Furthermore, 45% describe themselves as conservatives, compared with 18% who say they are liberal.

National Public Radio’s audience is holding steady as well: 16% of Americans regularly listen to NPR. In contrast to the talk radio audience, the NPR audience is fairly young, well-educated and Democratic. Fully 41% of regular NPR listeners are Democrats, 24% are Republicans.

More Go Online for News

One of the few upward trends in media consumption in recent years has been the percentage of Americans who turn to Internet sources for news. As the public has moved away from traditional news sources local and network television news, newspapers and, to a lesser extent, radio online news consumption has increased dramatically. In 1995, just 2% of the public was going online at least three days a week to get news. That number had increased more than sixfold (to 13%) by 1998 and nearly doubled again (to 23%) by 2000. The growth has been slower since then, but still trending upward (currently at 29%).

The online news audience is young, affluent and well-educated. More men than women go online to get news, but the gender gap has narrowed in recent years. The increase in online news use since 2002 has been particularly sharp among racial and ethnic minority groups. In 2002, 15% of African Americans went online regularly for news. Today that figure has risen to 25%. Among Hispanics, 32% now go online regularly for news, up from 22% in 2002.

Where They Go: AOL, Yahoo, Network Sites

When going online for news, Americans for the most part rely on familiar names: 13% say they regularly visit the news pages of AOL, Yahoo or other Internet service providers; 10% say they go to the websites of the major broadcast and cable news networks; and 9% go to the website of their local paper. Fewer people say they go to the sites of national newspapers (6%), while 3% go to online magazines like Slate.com or National Review online.

To put these numbers in perspective, as many people now say they regularly log on to the news pages of one of the major Internet providers as regularly read news magazines like Time or Newsweek (13%), or watch the Sunday morning talk shows (12%). And many more people say they regularly go to these sites than watch such well-known cable programs as the O’Reilly Factor (8% regularly) or Larry King Live (5%).

Moreover, as many as 26% of Americans say they regularly visit one or more of these online sites the news pages of the Internet service providers, network or local TV news websites, newspaper sites or online magazines. That approaches the 36% who regularly watch one or more of the network TV news broadcasts, though it lags well behind the overall audience for cable news programs (44%).

Like the online news audience generally, the people who visit specific Internet news sites tend to be young and well-educated. One-in-five college graduates (21%) say they regularly visit the news pages of AOL, Yahoo and other services providers, while 17% regularly go to the network TV websites. By comparison, just 7% of those with no more than a high school education visit the news pages of AOL, Yahoo and similar services and the same number visits the network TV sites.

Round-the-Clock News

In spite of shifting public preferences, the news remains a central part of Americans’ lives. Most people consume news morning, noon and night. Fully 71% say that, on a typical weekday, they start their morning with some type of news. This has been a consistent pattern, as 68% of Americans said the same in 2002 and 67% did so in 1998. The morning news habit is prevalent across most major demographic groups. Young people are among the least likely to start their day with news, yet 60% say that they typically do. College graduates are among the most likely to do so (79%). Internet users seek out news in the morning at a higher rate than non-Internet users.

Nearly three-quarters of Americans (73%) follow news during the course of the day. This is up significantly from 61% two years ago. For the most part, the increase in daytime news consumption can be seen across the board. Young people are less inclined than their older counterparts to seek out news during the day. And college graduates and Internet news users are among the biggest daytime news consumers.

Six-in-ten Americans say they typically read, watch or listen to the news around the dinner hour. This percentage has increased somewhat from 55% in 2002. More women than men get the news at this time of day. Younger people lag behind again, but the educational and online differences in morning and daytime news consumption are not evident at the dinner hour.

Overall, 63% of Americans say they read, watch or listen to the news late in the evening. Getting the news at that time has broad appeal. Looking across the demographic spectrum at men and women, young and old, the college-educated and those with less than a high school diploma, no single group dominates the late news audience.

During these late night hours, many young people are tuning into comedy shows such as David Letterman and Jay Leno. Those under age 30 are among the most likely to watch these types of shows 17% watch Leno or Letterman regularly, compared with 8% of 30-49 year-olds and 12% of those age 50 and older.

Time Spent with the News

The amount of time Americans spend with the news has fluctuated only marginally in recent years. On average, Americans spend a little over an hour each day (66 minutes) watching, reading or listening to the news. This is up somewhat from 59 minutes in 2002 but still lower than the 73 minutes recorded a decade ago. More time is spent watching television news than reading a newspaper or listening to the radio. Americans spend an average of 32 minutes watching television news on any given day. This is up modestly from 28 minutes in 2002, but down from a high of 38 minutes in 1994. Six-in-ten say they watched TV news the previous day, and 31% watched for an hour or more.

Americans spend far less time reading a newspaper or listening to news on the radio each day 17 minutes for each. These figures have remained remarkably stable over the last 10 years. The average amount of time spent reading the news online is seven minutes.

The decrease in time spent with the news from 1994-2004 has been driven almost entirely by the changing behavior of young people. In 1994, 18-24 year-olds were spending on average 51 minutes a day watching TV news, reading newspapers or listening to news on the radio. Those age 65 and older were spending an average of 90 minutes with the news a gap of 39 minutes. Today, 18-24 year-olds spend 35 minutes a day with the news. While that represents a modest increase from 2002 (from 31 minutes), those age 65 and older spend around 85 minutes with the news on TV, radio and in newspapers. By this measure, the gap between the oldest and youngest Americans stands at 50 minutes.

When it comes to watching other television programming, reading magazines and reading books for pleasure, young people are on equal footing with their older counterparts. The gap comes on news-related media, which does not seem to engage young consumers.

The overall decrease in time spent with the news over the last 10 years has coincided with the increase in Internet news consumption. Just 15% of those who go online weekly for news say they are using other sources of news less, but there is clearly a link between Internet use and consumption of traditional media, especially television news viewing. Among online users, 58% report having watched TV news the previous day, but just 27% say they spent an hour or more doing so. By contrast, among non-online users, 65% watched TV news yesterday, with 41% watching for an hour or more.

Internet usage is not linked to newspaper readership in the same way. Nearly equal percentages of Internet users and non-Internet users (42% and 41%, respectively) report having read a newspaper yesterday. And there are no significant differences in the time each group spent reading the paper. But unlike TV news, Internet users are more likely than those not online to listen to news on the radio: 44% tuned into radio news yesterday, compared to 33% of those who don’t go online.

The Media and Daily Life

Relative to life’s other daily chores and activities, news consumption takes up a significant amount of time. On a typical day, Americans are about as likely to watch TV news as they are to turn on the TV for entertainment programming. And the proportion who make personal telephone calls, have family meals together, and pray on a typical day is only slightly higher.

The Internet has also become a part of daily life for many Americans, and it is more than just something people do at work. Nearly as many go online from home on a typical day as read a newspaper or listen to news on the radio. Using the Internet at home is about as common as exercising or reading books. Other activities that compete for Americans’ time these days include shopping, emailing friends and family, reading magazines, and watching movies at home.

Politicization of Cable News

In an era of deep-seated political divisions, conservatives and liberals are increasingly choosing sides in their TV news preferences. The cable news audience is more Republican and more strongly conservative than the public at large or the network news audience. Among regular cable news viewers, 43% describe their political views as conservative, compared with 33% of regular network news viewers; 37% of cable viewers are moderate, compared to 41% of network viewers; and 14% are liberal vs. 18% of network viewers.

Looking at specific cable networks, the contrasts are even sharper. As the regular audience for the Fox News Channel has grown over the past six years, it has become much more conservative and more Republican. In 1998, the Fox News audience mirrored the public in terms of both partisanship and ideology. If anything, Fox viewers were slightly more Democratic than the general public. Since then, the percentage of Fox News Channel viewers who identify as Republicans has increased steadily from 24% in 1998, to 29% in 2000, 34% in 2002, and 41% in 2004. Over the same time period, the percentage of Fox viewers who describe themselves as conservative has increased from 40% to 52%.

By contrast, the regular audience for CNN is somewhat more Democratic than the general public and almost identical to the public in terms of ideology. The regular nightly network news audience largely mirrors the general public in terms of partisanship and ideology.

Radio is another news source where ideological beliefs come into play. Republicans and conservatives are more likely than Democrats and liberals to listen to news on the radio. Nearly half of those who identify themselves as Republicans (48%) report listening to the radio yesterday. This compares with 38% of Democrats. And 45% of conservatives say they tuned into radio news yesterday, compared to 38% of liberals. The differences are much sharper for talk radio specifically. Fully 24% of Republicans regularly listen to radio shows that invite listeners to call in to discuss current events, public issues and politics. Only about half as many Democrats (13%) regularly listen to these types of shows. Similarly, 21% of conservatives listen to talk radio compared with 16% of liberals. The partisan gap in the talk radio audience has grown in recent years. In 2002, more Republicans than Democrats listened to talk radio programs regularly (21% vs. 16%, respectively). Today Republican attention has increased to 24%, while Democratic interest has dropped to 13%.

O’Reilly Audience More Conservative

Rush Limbaugh’s radio show attracts a disproportionately conservative audience: 77% of Limbaugh’s regular listeners describe themselves as conservative. This is up from 72% in 2002 and compares with 36% of the general public who describe themselves in these terms. On television, the O’Reilly Factor draws a similar audience: 72% of O’Reilly’s regular viewers are self-described conservatives. The O’Reilly audience has become much more ideological in recent years. In 2002 far fewer regular O’Reilly viewers (56%) described themselves as conservative and more were moderate (36% vs. 23% now).

National Public Radio’s audience has shown the most significant shift to the left. Today, three-in-ten regular NPR listeners describe themselves as liberal up from 20% in 2002. Still, just as many describe themselves as conservative (31%) or moderate (33%). The only news outlets with a more liberal following are literary magazines such as The Atlantic Monthly, Harpers and The New Yorker.

Regular newspaper readers are not highly ideological. A plurality describes themselves as moderates, and the number of liberals and conservatives mirrors those in the general public. Similarly, weekly news magazines like Time and Newsweek appeal to readers across the ideological spectrum. Business magazines, on the other hand, attract a more conservative audience. Political magazines like the Weekly Standard and the New Republic are more widely read by conservatives and liberals, and are less popular among political moderates.

More Women Watch Network News

While conservatives and liberals seek out different news sources, men and women also have their own distinct preferences. Men are more oriented toward newspapers, radio news, cable television news, and online news. Women are more loyal to the major TV networks, as they are far more likely than men to watch network morning shows like the Today Show and the networks’ news magazines, such as 60 Minutes and Dateline. In addition, a higher percentage of women than men now watch a nightly network newscast on CBS, ABC or NBC. There was no gender gap on network news viewership in 2002 and only a slight gap in 2000.

Needing News for Work

Many Americans do not just keep up with the news because they enjoy it or out of a sense of civic responsibility, but because they need to for their job. Roughly a third of working people (32%) say that it is important for their job to keep up with the news.

Fully 44% of working college graduates say keeping up with the news is important for their jobs, compared with just 24% of working high school graduates and 17% of those who have not completed high school.

Similarly, people with high incomes also more often say they follow the news because it is important for their work. Among workers with household incomes over $75,000 annually, 41% say keeping up with the news is important. Fewer than three-in-ten in any lower income category say the same about their jobs.

People who need news for their jobs are far more likely to go online for news, and are heavier consumers of news at virtually all times of day not just at work. Nearly half (48%) go online for news at least three days a week, and three-in-ten are online for news every day. Getting news in the morning is particularly important for those with jobs that require them to stay current. Fully 83% typically get news in the morning, and 78% say they get news during the day as well.

Yet those who need to keep up with the news for work do not consider this a chore. About two-thirds (65%) say they enjoy keeping up with the news a lot, compared with 43% of those whose jobs do not require them to follow the news.