How Top Issues Compare to Cable News Viewership

by Dante Chinni November 09, 2023

One of the biggest findings in the recently released American Communities Project opinion survey was the stark differences between the top local and national issues, particularly in some community types. Issues that were viewed as crucial in local terms, faded nationally, and issues that were not big locally ranked much higher as national concerns.

One big possible driver of those differences is how and where people get their news. The ACP, working with Comscore, has a way of measuring that in each of the 15 community types. For this analysis we looked at the ratings in each of the 15 types for four news channels: CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and Newsmax. There are many ways communities keep up on the news, of course, but for this first analysis the ACP chose the cable channels that only focus on news.

The numbers reveal clear differences in where people in each of the communities turn for their news. And while those four outlets are far from an exhaustive list of news sources, they offer a look at the habits around the cable news channel landscape.

What the survey found

The differences between the local and national issues of concern are noteworthy because, to some extent, they reveal differences between what people experience in their lives every day and what they learn about through other sources.

After all, local issues are things people can see and hear around them. National issues require at least some amount of outside narrative. No one knows what is happening tens or hundreds or thousands of miles away, without someone telling them, either through news media or social media or friends and family. And where people in different communities go for those outside narratives can be crucial to their understanding of them.

The local/national issue split showed up on a number of issues in a number of communities.

In College Towns, for instance, there were big disparities around homelessness. As a local issue, 28% of those surveyed in the College Towns listed homelessness among the top three issues of concern. It was the second most important local issue overall. But 9% of the people in the College Towns place it among the top three issues nationally. The data suggest a difference in what these residents see and feel in their daily lives and what they see from outside sources.

The reverse was true with “immigration” in the Evangelical Hubs, places with large numbers of white Evangelical Christians. Only 10% of residents saw immigration as a top three issue locally, but when the frame was flipped to national issues, 33% saw immigration as a top three issue, a more than three-fold jump. And that is in community type that is overwhelming white, non-Hispanic, and with small immigrant populations, as the ACP knows from other research. (You can explore those data points in the ACP’s Data Clearinghouse.) That suggests an outside force driving the narrative in those communities.

And the Evangelical Hubs weren’t alone in that finding. Other rural, largely white communities showed the same local/national split on immigration: Working Class Country, Rural Middle America, and Graying America (communities mostly not near the U.S.-Mexico border).

Who Watches What

Comscore’s data, which captures direct viewing from an average of 1-in-3 homes nationwide, sheds some light on where those communities and others go for cable news. The numbers represent the average number of TV households in each community that are tuned to each news channel across all parts of the day. There are noteworthy differences.

The point here is not the overall numbers for each. For instance, as the highest rated news channel, Fox News has the highest ratings score across all the types.

The numbers worth noting are the differences between the types. For instance, the Aging Farmlands have the highest ratings numbers of all the types for Fox News and Newsmax. The Big Cities have the highest ratings numbers for CNN and MSNBC.

But that’s just a quick, high-level reading of the data. There are more complicated findings around some communities.

For instance, the Exurbs and Military Posts both lean solidly Republican in terms of their voting habits, but their viewing habits among the big four cable networks are more nuanced. Their ratings sit in the middle of the pack among the 15 types for all four channels. And in both those communities, immigration rises as a concern on the national issues question, but it doesn’t crack the top two issues at the national or local level.

The same is true for the Middle Suburbs, located around the industrial Midwest, which have swung Republican in recent years. Their viewing habits are more mixed, scoring in the middle or lower for ratings among all the news channels, and their concerns about immigration also don’t skyrocket at the national level.

The African American South, meanwhile, scores low for viewing Fox News and Newsmax, but not especially high for watching CNN or MSNBC. In general, those communities seem to be smaller national cable news consumers, and their local and national issue concerns look somewhat similar — both are dominated by inflation and crime, with everything else trailing far behind.

Graying America, on the other hand, home to older Americans and many retirees, seems to be home to more cable news viewers across the board. The communities score on the higher side on the ratings chart for channels with a range of ideological views, including Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC. And their national issue list shows big jumps for both crime and immigration compared to their local issues.

To be fair, cable news is just one way of receiving information in 2023 America. Broadcast networks, social media, and print outlets (news which we wrote about last week) all play important roles. But in the broadest sense, these viewership numbers suggest that in some communities, cable news may play a role in the way issues are perceived at the national level or reinforce already-present narratives around them.

And, in a broader sense, Comscore believes these findings suggest that the source of news and other media information that individuals choose to consume may offer a probative indicator of their ideological leanings, including how they might vote on given issues. The firm believes that real-time insights from media consumption might offer predictive indications on the outcome of elections, and that these insights might possibly be used to calibrate polling predictions which have been increasingly off the mark.

At the very least, the media consumption data, combined with the ACP's survey offers important insights into how communities receive the messages they do about the world outside the bubbles in which they live. The ACP will be exploring the connection between these different inputs when we head out into the field in the coming weeks.

Vol. 3 2020-2021

Deaths of Despair Across America

The American Communities Project is undertaking a 30-month study of Deaths of Despair in its 15 community types.

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