The terms “echo chamber” and “filter bubble” are often used to describe social media’s selective exposure of news content to audiences. Industry research has found that platforms using algorithmic rankings and recommendations produce less diverse and more segregated audience opinions. However, television news is generally excluded from these analyses. New research, Quantifying partisan news diets in Web and TV audiences, seeks to illuminate the impact of television news as a driver of partisan ideology.
Authors, Daniel Muise, Homa Hosseinmardi, Baird Howland, Maarkus Mobius, David Rothschild, and Duncan Watts used nationally representative panel data between 2016 and 2019 to analyze minute-level usage from national TV tracking and second-level laptop/desktop browser tracking. They conclude that partisan audience segregation affects between three and four times more Americans via TV news than online news.
On average, the report says that 17% of Americans are partisan segregated through television news. However, they find that only 4% of Americans’ partisan-bias is a result of online news. This contrasts starkly with the belief that the digital ecosystem has amplified echo-chambers.
TV news’ partisan audience
The research also finds that television news consumers are likelier to maintain their partisan news consumption for a longer time than online audiences. While right-segregated online news consumers are somewhat more likely to remain segregated after 1 month (29.1%), and more than three times as likely to remain after 6 months (6.3%), online partisan segregation—when it arises—is generally fleeting at the monthly level.
News source exclusivity
One significant factor is the number of sources for news available in each medium. While the online news environment offers numerous choices, TV news viewers still only have a handful of sources. And, once they’ve chosen, it becomes the default choice. The research finds that TV audiences do not stray from their most preferred sources compared to online audiences. Among partisan TV news viewers, those who consume mostly MSNBC rarely consume news from any other source besides CNN. Further, audiences that consume mostly Fox News do not go elsewhere for TV news content.
Online audiences, however, tend to be more inclusive in preferences for their news content and include some mainstream and moderate sources.
The authors also analyze TV and online news consumption by age, race, and educational level. Not surprisingly, partisan segregation is much more apparent among older adults in the TV audience. Interestingly, adults 55 years old and older viewers lean toward right-leaning biased segregation. In contrast, older adults are more likely than younger adults to be partisan segregated to the left via online news.
White Americans are far more likely to be partisan segregated to the right on either platform than Americans who do not identify as white. The most partisan-segregated news consumers are postgraduate degree holders on the left. Seventeen percent of highly educated Americans are TV news consumers whose news diet is mainly left-leaning.
This research finds that segregation is more prevalent, concentrated, and persistent on TV than online. While the overall TV news audience is shrinking, the partisan TV news audience is growing in absolute terms. TV news audiences are undergoing a cleansing process of alternative viewpoints, and there are consequences for our democracy. Significantly, this research establishes a clear need to consider television when examining the existence and impact of filter bubbles.