U.S. Media Polarization and the 2020 Election: A Nation Divided
1. Democrats report much higher levels of trust in a number of news sources than Republicans
This analysis asked individuals about 30 specific news sources across different platforms, selected on a range of measures including audience size, topic areas covered and relevance to political news. (For more details, see the methodology.) Respondents were shown grids of sources and asked to click on those they had heard of. Among the outlets respondents had heard of, they were asked to then click on those they trusted and then those they distrusted for political and election news. It’s worth noting that trust and distrust figures are somewhat dependent on how much of the population has heard of the source. Outlets with low awareness among the public, for example, would also necessarily have smaller portions who could express trust or distrust.
Almost half (13) of the 30 sources asked about are trusted by at least 33% of Democrats, and six are trusted by at least 50%. Among Democrats and Democratic leaners, CNN sits at the top, trusted by two-thirds (67%) of Democrats. That is followed by the three commercial broadcast networks, all closely bunched together: NBC News (61% of Democrats), ABC News (60%) and CBS News (59%).
How respondents were asked about 30 sources
Respondents were shown grids of 30 news outlets and asked to select the ones that they had heard of. If they had heard of an outlet, they were asked if they trusted it for political and election news. If they didn’t say that they trust an outlet, they were then asked if they distrusted it. Finally, respondents were asked if they had gotten political or election news in the past week from any of the outlets they had heard about. See the methodology for more details.
Also trusted by at least 50% of Democrats are the public television outlet PBS (56%) and The New York Times (53%). Next come the United Kingdom-based public media outlet BBC (48%), the cable channel MSNBC (48%) and The Washington Post (47%). Public radio outlet NPR and Time magazine are each trusted by 46% of Democrats.
Conversely, after the 65% of Republicans and Republican leaners who trust Fox News as a source, trust levels drop precipitously. The only other source trusted by as many as one-third of Republicans is ABC (33% of Republicans), followed closely by CBS, NBC and the Sean Hannity radio show (all at 30%). Even though the three broadcast networks rank among Republicans’ top five most-trusted sources, only about half as many Republicans as Democrats trust them.
Similarly, the percentage of Republicans who trust The New York Times (15%) and The Washington Post (13%) is about a third of the share of Democrats who do.
Trust measures for the full list of sources can be found in the sortable tables below, but in all, 18 sources are trusted by fewer than 20% of Republicans, compared with 13 trusted by fewer than 20% of Democrats.
Distrust levels offer a near reverse image of party-line gaps in trust
It is one thing to not express trust in an outlet; voicing outright distrust is another matter. Hefty party-line differences come through when looking at levels of distrust as well.
Only four of the 30 sources in this study are distrusted by one-third or more Democrats and Democratic leaners. At the top of the list by a wide margin is Fox News, distrusted by 61% of Democrats for political and election news.
Other sources distrusted by a third or more of Democrats are Rush Limbaugh (43%), the Sean Hannity radio show (38%) and Breitbart (36%). Here is it worth noting that only between 40% and 50% of Democrats have heard of those sources, which means the vast majority who could weigh in express distrust.
Beyond these news outlets, there is little Democratic distrust to go around. Fewer than 10% of Democrats distrust the three major commercial broadcast networks, the two U.S. public media sources (NPR and PBS), the two weekly news magazines (Newsweek and Time magazine) or the four daily newspapers with a national reach. These numbers are another way of reflecting Democrats’ confidence in many sources in this study.
Among Republicans and Republican leaners, distrust of media sources is more common. Eight sources – twice as many as the Democrats’ total — are distrusted by at least one-third of Republicans. At the top of the list is CNN, which is distrusted by 58% of Republicans. Then come MSNBC (distrusted by 47%), The New York Times (42%), NBC (40%), The Washington Post (39%), CBS (37%), ABC (37%) and HuffPost (34%).\
Conversely, the four sources distrusted by the most Democrats – Sean Hannity, Breitbart, Rush Limbaugh and Fox News – are distrusted by 20% or fewer of Republicans.
Ratios of trust and distrust in news sources help tell the story
The extent of partisan media polarization – the fundamental divergence over the credibility of news sources – may be most clearly reflected by looking at trust and distrust together.
Of the 30 sources examined in this study, there are seven that Republicans (and those who lean Republican) trust more than they distrust for political and election news, 20 are distrusted by more Republicans than trusted, and three receive a mixed verdict.
Among Democrats (and those who lean Democratic), the numbers are close to reversed: 22 sources are trusted by more Democrats than distrusted, while eight are distrusted by more Democrats than trusted.
Of the sources trusted by more Republicans than distrusted, Fox News stands out. More than three times as many Republicans trust it as distrust it for political and election news (65% of Republicans vs. 19% who express distrust). The Sean Hannity radio show is trusted by three times as many Republicans as those who distrust it (30% of Republicans trust it vs. 10% who distrust it). Rush Limbaugh is trusted by 27% of Republicans and distrusted by 14%.
How to read graphics showing trust and distrust
These graphics compare how many people trust each outlet to how many distrust it. The outlets are grouped into one of three groups: Sources that are trusted by more people than distrusted; sources that are distrusted by more people than trusted; or sources that are trusted and distrusted by about the same amount of people. Assignments to each group are based on whether the percent of people who trust each outlet is statistically significantly different from the percent who distrust it. Within those groups, the outlets are sorted from top to bottom by the ratio of trust to distrust. The order does not necessarily indicate that an outlet’s overall level of trust is significantly different from the outlet below or above it.
Respondents were only asked whether they trust or distrust an outlet if they had heard of it (see the topline.) For several outlets, large portions of the population have not heard of them, resulting in small segments who could express trust or distrust.
Outlets included in the study reflect a mix of sources of political and election news. To see more about how we chose the 30 outlets asked about, see the methodology.
Other sources trusted by more Republicans than distrusted include several long-established news outlets where the ratio of trust to distrust is narrower. PBS is trusted by 27% of Republicans and distrusted by 20%, the BBC is trusted by 21% and distrusted by 16%, and The Wall Street Journal is trusted by 24% and distrusted by 19%.
Not only are Democrats much more likely to express more trust than distrust of most sources, the ratio is often much wider.
Among the Democrats’ sources with the largest margins between trust and distrust are PBS (56% trust vs. 4% distrust), NPR (46% vs. 2%), NBC (61% vs. 6%), CBS (59% vs. 6%), ABC (60% vs. 7%), BBC (48% vs. 5%), The New York Times (53% vs. 6%), The Washington Post (47% vs. 7%) and CNN (67% vs. 10%).
Within that group, both The Washington Post and The New York Times are among the outlets with the greatest distrust-to-trust ratio among Republicans. Also highly distrusted among Republicans are HuffPost (4% of Republicans trust and 34% distrust) and BuzzFeed at 3% trust to 29% distrust.
The much smaller group of sources distrusted by more Democrats than trusted includes Breitbart, Rush Limbaugh and the Sean Hannity radio show. Each of these is trusted by about 1% of Democrats and distrusted by about a third or more. One other outlet that fares poorly among Democrats is Fox News (23% trust to 61% distrust).
Amid this deep polarization, a few sources stand out across parties. PBS, the BBC and the Wall Street Journal are the three outlets trusted more than distrusted by both Republicans and Democrats.
At the other end of the spectrum, three outlets are distrusted by more in each party than trusted: the Washington Examiner, the New York Post, and BuzzFeed.
Trust, distrust, use and awareness of each news source by party and across all U.S. adults can be examined in the sortable tables below.