The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The very different media universes in which Americans live, visualized

President Biden is seen through a camera viewfinder as he speaks in the White House on Aug. 22, 2021. (Oliver Contreras for The Washington Post)

That you are reading this article on the website of The Washington Post means that I can make some basic assumptions about who you are. More likely than not, you’re a college graduate who earns more than $50,000 a year. You probably voted for Joe Biden in 2020 and not Donald Trump.

You may be an exception; there are many. But, as new polling from YouGov and the Economist shows, there are patterns in media consumption that correlate to education, age, income — and party affiliation.

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The research is interesting not because it reveals anything particularly earth-shattering; the demographics of newspaper readers are both well-established and a fixation of people who are trying to sell newspapers. Instead, the new polling provides a fascinating breadth in considering where people get their news and which outlets they trust.

We’ll start with the celebrities: CNN’s Anderson Cooper is the most trusted of the news hosts and anchors included in YouGov’s questions. As you might expect, given his employer, there was a wide gulf by party: nearly two-thirds of Democrats viewed him as trustworthy or very trustworthy, compared to about 1 in 7 Republicans. For Fox News’s Tucker Carlson, the partisanship was flipped. More than half of Republicans trust Carlson, compared to 1 in 8 Democrats.

But focusing on cable news is too narrow. YouGov asked people to identify sources they had used for news in the past week, offering a range of options such as broadcast news and YouTube. We have plotted those responses below by age, vaccination status and political party.

This type of chart may not be immediately familiar to you, so a quick explanation of how to read the chart is in order. Values radiate from the middle of the diagram, with the two circles indicating 25 and 50 percent of respondents. Sources of news are identified at the ends of spokes. So, on the first chart below, more than half of those 65 and over said they used cable and broadcast television for their news in the past week, while more than a third of those under 30 used social media.

There are interesting overlaps between age and vaccination status and between vaccination status and party. For example, the unvaccinated are less likely to cite traditional sources for news than are the vaccinated — but so are young Americans, who are less likely to be vaccinated. In other words, it’s not simply that the unvaccinated rely more on YouTube. That’s confounded with the fact that younger people rely more on YouTube.

Notice, though, that the curves for vaccination and being a Democrat are similar, as are the curves for being unvaccinated and being Republican. This is more straightforward: The unvaccinated are much more likely to be Republicans than to be Democrats. This runs contrary to the age pattern, since younger people are more likely to be Democrats.

We can see the differences between these groups more clearly when we look at trust in specific sources for news — where party and ideology start to manifest explicitly. So we see that older Americans are more likely to trust Fox News and PBS. Younger Americans are more likely to trust national newspapers such as The Washington Post. (Values for broadcast television below are averaged between the three national networks.)

And then things become interesting.

What’s really striking about the bottom two graphs is how similar they are. The patterns of trust in media are the same for the unvaccinated as for Republicans. What’s more, that trust is centered in right-wing sources such as Fox News, One America News (OAN) and Newsmax. Three in 10 Republicans say they find OAN trustworthy or very trustworthy; for Newsmax, it’s 4 in 10. That’s more than twice the level of trust expressed for PBS, the Associated Press or The Post.

The bottom chart also reinforces a point I wrote about Monday. Democrats divide their attention between multiple sources of news far more than do Republicans. This is the main reason that Fox consistently leads in the ratings. It’s not because Americans trust it (it trails most other national outlets); it’s because Republicans often rely on it to the exclusion of other sources.

With effects felt everywhere else.