October 31, 2008

Internet Now Major Source of Campaign News

Continuing Partisan Divide in Cable TV News Audience

Summary of Findings

Many more Americans are turning to the internet for campaign news this year as the web becomes a key source of election news. Television remains the dominant source, but the percent who say they get most of their campaign news from the internet has tripled since October 2004 (from 10% then to 33% now).

While use of the web has seen considerable growth, the percentage of Americans relying on TV and newspapers for campaign news has remained relatively flat since 2004. The internet now rivals newspapers as a main source for campaign news. And with so much interest in the election next week, the public’s use of the internet as a campaign news source is up even since the primaries earlier this year. In March, 26% cited the internet as a main source for election news, while the percentages citing television and newspapers remain largely unchanged.

Not surprisingly, the internet is a considerably more popular source for campaign news among younger Americans than older ones. Nearly three times as many people ages 18 to 29 mention the internet than mention newspapers as a main source of election news (49% vs. 17%). Nearly the opposite is true among those over age 50: some 22% rely on the internet for election news while 39% look to newspapers. Compared with 2004, use of the internet for election news has increased across all age groups. Among the youngest cohort (age 18-29), TV has lost significant ground to the internet.

On television, the cable news outlets clearly dominate the big three networks as main sources of campaign news. Nearly half of the public (46%) turns to the cable news channels, with 25% naming CNN as a main source of campaign news, 21% naming Fox News Channel and 10% naming MSNBC. Only 24% rely on the network news outlets ABC, CBS and NBC. Another 13% look to local TV news. This reflects broader changes in news consumption patterns. In recent years, cable news outlets have overtaken the networks as the general news sources that the public watches most regularly. [See “Key News Audiences Now Blend Online and Traditional Sources”; released August 17, 2008]

Cable News Audiences Highly Partisan

The audiences for the major cable news networks are highly partisan, while the audiences for network TV and the internet are more in line with the general public.

Among those who name the Fox News Channel as their main source for campaign news, 52% are Republicans and only 17% are Democrats. By contrast, among those who rely on MSNBC for their campaign news, 50% are Democrats and only 11% are Republicans. Similarly, CNN’s campaign news audience is largely Democratic – 45% are Democrats and 13% are Republicans.

Notably, there are substantial differences in awareness of recent campaign events among the different cable news audiences. Majorities in each audience said they heard a lot about reports that the Republican National Committee spent about $150,000 on clothing for Sarah Palin and her family. But far more of those who get most campaign news from MSNBC than those who rely on Fox News heard a lot about the controversy (71% vs. 51%, respectively heard a lot about this story). Among those who turn to CNN for election news, 62% reported hearing a lot about Palin’s wardrobe.

Colin Powell’s endorsement of Barack Obama registered more widely among the MSNBC news audience than among those who rely on Fox News for presidential campaign coverage. Seven-in-ten MSNBC viewers heard a lot about the Powell endorsement, compared with 54% of the Fox News audience. Close to six-in-ten (59%) of those who turn to CNN heard a lot about the endorsement.

About two-thirds of those who rely mainly on Fox News for campaign coverage (66%) said they had heard a lot about links between Obama and ACORN, the community organizing group that has been accused of voter registration fraud. A comparable proportion (62%) of those who rely mainly on MSNBC heard a lot about this story. A majority of those who get most of their campaign news from CNN (52%) heard a lot about the ACORN allegations.

About the Survey

The News Interest Index is a weekly survey conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press aimed at gauging the public’s interest in and reaction to major news events.

This project has been undertaken in conjunction with the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s News Coverage Index, an ongoing content analysis of the news. The News Coverage Index catalogues the news from top news organizations across five major sectors of the media: newspapers, network television, cable television, radio and the internet. Each week (from Sunday through Friday) PEJ will compile this data to identify the top stories for the week. The News Interest Index survey will collect data from Friday through Monday to gauge public interest in the most covered stories of the week.

The results for this press release are based on landline telephone interviews conducted under the direction of ORC (Opinion Research Corporation) based on the combined data from two nationwide samples of adults, 18 years of age or older. For results based on the combined sample of 2,011 respondents, one can say with 95% confidence that the error attributable to sampling is plus or minus 2.5 percentage points. For results based on the separate survey samples conducted October 17-20, 2008 (N=1,003) and October 24-27, 2008 (N=1,008), the sampling error is plus or minus 3.5 percentage.

In addition to sampling error, one should bear in mind that question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of opinion polls, and that results based on subgroups will have larger margins of error.