The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What Obama gets wrong about the media echo chamber

President Obama at the White House on March 14. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

President Obama has had strong words for the press over the past few weeks, most recently at a dinner with journalists Monday night in Washington. He's blamed the news media for political polarization, arguing that journalists don't enough to challenge Americans' preconceptions.

When people tune into the news, the president says, they can choose media outlets that report the facts with a bias that favors their point of view. He's also argued that journalists don't do enough to question the often outrageous claims that politicians make on the record, suggesting obliquely that the press should subject GOP front-runner Donald Trump to more scrutiny.

"Some people are just watching Fox News; some people are just reading the New York Times," Obama said in January. "They almost occupy two different realities in terms of how they see the world."

Yet recent research on how Americans watch, read and listen to the news contradicts this conventional wisdom that people on each side are trapped in virtual echo chambers in which they never hear different political views.

Yes, people spend more time with outlets that convey a point of view that conforms to their own. There is no evidence, however, that people avoid information that contradicts their worldview. In their daily lives, Americans hear plenty from the other side.

"Although liberals watch Fox News less than conservatives, a lot of liberals watch Fox News," said Stanford University economist Matthew Gentzkow, summarizing several recent studies on this question. "Although conservatives watch MSNBC less than liberals, a lot of conservatives watch MSNBC." 

One forthcoming study by Thomas Ksiazek, who teaches journalism at Villanova University, demonstrates this point with data on how Americans get their news that Nielsen collected in March 2009.

Partisans do have their preferred outlets, the data suggest. That month, the average Fox viewer spent nearly 17 minutes a day watching the channel's coverage, while the average person who watched CNN -- a more centrist outlet -- did so for an average of just over 6 minutes a day.

All the same, among those who watched Fox News, 69 percent also watched CNN that month, and 57 percent watched MSNBC.

The three major cable channels all have large audiences, so it wasn't surprising that many people had at least some exposure to more than one of these outlets. Remarkably, though, Fox's audiences were actually more likely to watch MSNBC than the general public, and vice versa. In other words, far from shutting out what they didn't want to hear, Fox's viewers showed an appetite for news from all angles.

"They're open to different ideas, a diversity of perspectives," Ksiazek said.

The same was true of MSNBC's audience. Among those who watched the channel, 69 percent also watched Fox.

More than a partisan division, the data suggest a division between Americans who don't have time for the news, and those who follow it avidly. While this latter group might have a favorite station or Web site, they weren't necessarily averse to information from other sources.

And there was also a division by format, into cable and newspaper audiences. Someone who watches MSNBC was far more disproportionately likely to watch Fox than to read the putatively liberal New York Times, for example. Relative to the general population, the Wall Street Journal's online readers -- often thought of as a conservative bunch -- were more likely to read the Times than to watch Fox.

And among those who read the New York Times online, roughly a third had watched MSNBC, and another third had watched Fox. Nearly a quarter had read the Journal.

Looking at these broad averages, it's worth noting that exposure to a different media outlet does not guarantee exposure to a different point of view.

Someone who watches Trump call in for an amicable, conversational interview with Fox and Friends has a good chance of hearing Rachel Maddow excoriating him on MSNBC. Then again, they might instead hear an interview between Trump and MSNBC's Joe Scarborough, who media critics say throws the front-runner softballs. As Ksiazek writes in his article, forthcoming in the Atlantic Journal of Communication, the data from Nielsen did not reveal the specific programs people were watching.

Bruce Bartlett, a former adviser to President Reagan who has criticized Fox for what he calls its biased coverage, argued this was an important limitation of the new study.

"MSNBC ran straight news during the day," Bartlett said. "To compare them to, say, Fox, which runs right-wing commentary 24/7, that's unbalanced. That's an unfair comparison."

Finally, partisans might not lend any credence to alternative points of view if they encounter them by chance when switching through the channels or following links at random online.

And on Monday night, Obama delivered a more detailed and subtle critique of the press: Journalists aren't writing as carefully as they once did. Their bosses, seeking profits in a world of social media, are asking them to write more quickly, without giving them the time to verify the claims that politicians make.

"Even as the appetite for information and data flowing through the Internet is voracious, we've seen newsrooms closed," Obama said, according to a transcript of his remarks provided by the White House. "The bottom line has shrunk. The news cycle has, as well. And too often, there is enormous pressure on journalists to fill the void and feed the beast with instant commentary and Twitter rumors, and celebrity gossip, and softer stories. And then we fail to understand our world or understand one another as well as we should."

There's no data on the extent to which journalists are challenging public figures on the record. Overall, though, the data at least suggest that many people will likely have their opinions challenged in the course of watching the news.

Journalists are far from perfect, and the news can get ugly sometimes. Nonetheless, Stanford's Gentzkow argued that a more buttoned-up, just-the-facts-ma'am media would be at odds with the principles of the American free press.

"Having a diverse marketplace of ideas -- having loud, aggressive, competitive, voices in the political debate -- is something that we have for a very long time held up as exactly the way we want our democracy to work," he said. "That kind of loud, rancorous political debate, even when it involves false claims and distortions and points of view that we don't like, is what we've chosen to bet on in setting up our democracy."