A Balanced News Diet After All?

by John Sides on April 30, 2012 · 10 comments

in Media

This is a guest post from Michael LaCour, a Ph.D. candidate in political science at UCLA.  The paper on which this post is based is here.

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The reemergence of a prominent partisan press has led many scholars to investigate partisan self-selection of news outlets. Political scientists and journalists have concluded that individuals are motivated to select media sources that match their own political views and avoid media sources that challenge their political views. However, an analysis of individuals’ actual media exposure patterns lead to conclusions about selective exposure quite different from previous research based on self-reported media exposure.

I use data collected by Integrated Media Measurement Incorporated (IMMI) – to measure individuals’ actual media exposure. Nine hundred and twenty panelists from the New York and Chicago media markets were given smartphones equipped with audio recognition software that continuously and  automatically captured their exposure to all radio and television media – over the course of the 2006 midterm campaign.

Results indicate that a majority of viewers consume little or no news and the remainder consume very high levels of local news  as well as an ideologically diverse set of partisan news programs.   The figure below measures panelists’ news diet among partisan sources on television and radio.   This is a net measure of how “balanced” individuals partisan news diet is (weighted by volume).  The figure displays the distribution of panelists’ partisan news diet in the form of separate kernel density estimates for Democrats and Republicans.

On this scale a high positive score represents a panelist watching and listening to media that is conservative. Conversely, a negative score indicates a panelist watching or listening to media that is liberal – and all the more so if the exposure occurs frequently at high volume. A detailed description of how media outlets are coded is here.


The unimodal distributions centered around zero, indicate that Democrats and Republicans have similar news consumption  patterns. Only a small unrepresentative subset of the public is sorting themselves into ideologically like-minded enclaves.

To summarize, most individuals do not refuse to hear the other side. In fact, most people consume predominately non-partisan  local TV newscasts, while tuning out news from partisan  sources altogether. Of those who do turn to partisan sources, most Republicans and Democrats have virtually indistinguishable news diets. Contrary to recent claims, there is little evidence that the electorate is self-sorting into “ideologically like-minded information cocoons” at the level being described by scholars and political commentators.

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