News Consumption Habits and Community Divisions

by Dante Chinni January 19, 2023

There are many prisms through which one can view the news and those prisms can lead to very different ideas of what’s happening in the world. Consider the January 17, 2023, broadcasts of Fox News’ “Tucker Carlson Tonight” and CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360.”

Carlson’s show devoted its lengthy opening segment to Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee’s “shrieking about white racism” and a full-throated critique of a bill she proposed, HR 61, the “Leading Against White Supremacy Act of 2023.”

Cooper opened his show with troubling “signs of the times,” including the arrest of Solomon Pena, the Republican state house candidate in New Mexico who allegedly hired people to shoot at the homes of local Democratic officials.

That is two very different ideas of the important news of the day. And if you watch one or the other you would likely have a very different idea of what’s going on in the United States.

As the American Communities Project begins its new project studying the divides running through the nation, it’s impossible to ignore the impacts of news consumption. The differences in where people get their news extends far beyond cable television, but differences in who watches shows like Carlson’s and Cooper’s can be seen at the community level in the ACP, using the latest consumer survey data from MRI-Simmons broken down for the project (fall 2021).

The Political News Divide

The differences among the 15 types are stark when you look at the two shows through the lens of viewership in the last seven days — and they follow familiar and predictable political lines.

The chart above shows the index scores for weekly viewership for each of the two programs, with a score of 100 being average. Any numbers above or below 100 show the percentage someone in the community is more or less likely to watch each show. (So, a score of 110 means people in that community are 10% more likely than average to watch and score of 90 means they are 10 % less likely.)

The top viewing communities for Carlson are Graying America, Working Class Country, and the Evangelical Hubs — all with index scores of more than 130. In 2020, Donald Trump captured 60% or more of the vote in each of those types.

The next four types on the chart for Carlson’s show – Rural Middle America, the Exurbs, the Military Posts, and the Middle Suburbs — all also went for Trump in 2020, by more than 20 percentage points.

Looking at Cooper’s viewership by community, a similar pattern emerges. The two communities with the highest index scores, the Big Cities and Urban Suburbs, which both have index scores above 114 or more, voted heavily for President Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential race. Both gave at least 60% of their vote to Biden and he won each of those types by more than 20 percentage points.

The African American South, which Trump narrowly won in 2020 (and 2016), is pretty evenly divided on the shows, slightly above average for Cooper and slightly below for Carlson.

The College Towns, which lean left politically and voted for Biden in 2020, look like something of an outlier here (higher for Carlson and lower for Cooper), but the numbers in those places may be skewed by the fact that college students tend to watch less actual broadcast and cable news than other communities. They are more reliant on streaming than other places.

Inherent Divisions

The numbers go a larger point about the nation’s political divides. They aren’t about one factor that is easy to mend. Rather they are multifaceted and tied into much deeper and different thoughts and beliefs about the state of the country and the best ways to “fix” it.

The ACP has seen these kinds of differences for years when we go out into communities to talk to people.

The question of media consumption and how it relates to ideas of governance is often framed as a “chicken and egg” discussion. Do people turn to conservative leaning or liberal leaning news outlets because of their beliefs or do the outlets create those beliefs? The answer seems to be a self-reinforcing “yes.”

The people in the various community types of the ACP live in very different worlds with different sorts of economies surrounded by different kinds of friends and neighbors — and those differences are reinforced by news choices. That’s not to say that news consumption differences aren’t important in understanding the nation’s divides, they are. But they are just one of many factors.

It’s all evidence of how complicated the divides are and how difficult they can be to understand and close. Those are the issues the ACP will be exploring in the next three years.

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.

Learn More