January 24, 2020

U.S. Media Polarization and the 2020 Election: A Nation Divided

Deep partisan divisions exist in the news sources Americans trust, distrust and rely on

Democrats express more trust of most news sources asked about; Republicans express more distrustAs the U.S. enters a heated 2020 presidential election year, a new Pew Research Center report finds that Republicans and Democrats place their trust in two nearly inverse news media environments.  

Overall, Republicans and Republican-leaning independents view many heavily relied on sources across a range of platforms as untrustworthy. At the same time, Democrats and independents who lean Democratic see most of those sources as credible and rely on them to a far greater degree, according to the survey of 12,043 U.S. adults conducted Oct. 29–Nov. 11, 2019, on Pew Research Center’s American Trends Panel.

These divides are even more pronounced between conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats.

Moreover, evidence suggests that partisan polarization in the use and trust of media sources has widened in the past five years. A comparison to a similar study by the Center of web-using U.S. adults in 2014 finds that Republicans have grown increasingly alienated from most of the more established sources, while Democrats’ confidence in them remains stable, and in some cases, has strengthened.

How we asked about trust and distrust

Respondents were first asked if they heard of the source, then if so, whether they trust or distrust it for political and election news and whether they got political and election news there in the past week. The two examples below show one outlet (CBS News) that is heard of by the vast majority of U.S. adults and is also trusted by far more people than distrusted, and another outlet (Politico) that has been heard of by far fewer adults (44%) but is still trusted by more people than distrusted, even though just 13% of the public expresses trust. See the methodology for a description of how the 30 outlets were selected.

How we asked about trust and distrust

The study asked about use of, trust in, and distrust of 30 different news sources for political and election news. While it is impossible to represent the entire crowded media space, the outlets, which range from network television news to Rush Limbaugh to the New York Times to the Washington Examiner to HuffPost, were selected to represent popular media brands across a range of platforms.

Greater portions of Republicans express distrust than express trust of 20 of the 30 sources asked about. Only seven outlets generate more trust than distrust among Republicans – including Fox News and the talk radio programs of hosts Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh.

For Democrats, the numbers are almost reversed. Greater portions of Democrats express trust than express distrust in 22 of the 30 sources asked about. Only eight generate more distrust than trust – including Fox News, Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh.

Another way to look at the diverging partisan views of media credibility: Almost half of the sources included in this report (13) are trusted by at least 33% of Democrats, but only two are trusted by at least 33% of Republicans.

Republicans place trust in one source, Fox News, far more than any other …Republicans’ lower trust in a variety of measured news sources coincides with their infrequent use. Overall, only one source, Fox News, was used by at least one-third of Republicans for political and election news in the past week. There are five different sources from which at least one-third of Democrats received political or election news in the last week (CNN, NBC News, ABC News, CBS News and MSNBC).

And in what epitomizes this era of polarized news, none of the 30 sources is trusted by more than 50% of all U.S. adults.

The Fox News phenomenon

In the more compact Republican media ecosystem, one outlet towers above all others: Fox News. It would be hard to overstate its connection as a trusted go-to source of political news for Republicans.

About two-thirds (65%) of Republicans and Republican leaners say they trust Fox News as a source. Additionally, 60% say they got political or election news there in the past week.

Among Democrats and Democratic leaners, CNN (67%) is about as trusted a source of information as Fox News is among Republicans. The cable network is also Democrats’ most commonly turned to source for political and election news, with about half (53%) saying they got news there in the past week.

The big difference is that while no other source comes close to rivaling Fox News’ appeal to Republicans, a number of sources other than CNN are also highly trusted and frequently used by Democrats.

The impact of political ideology on Americans’ trust in news outlets

The partisan gaps become even more dramatic when looking at the parties’ ideological poles – conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats.1 About two-thirds of liberal Democrats (66%) trust The New York Times, for example. In comparison, just 10% of conservative Republicans trust the Times, while 50% outright distrust it. Rush Limbaugh, meanwhile, is the third-most trusted source among conservative Republicans (38%) but tied for the second-most distrusted source among liberal Democrats (55%).

At the same time, the gap is less pronounced among the more moderate segments in each party. For example, three-quarters of conservative Republicans trust Fox News, while just about half (51%) of moderate or liberal Republicans do. Conversely, moderate and conservative Democrats are more than twice as likely as liberal Democrats to trust Fox News (32% vs. 12%).

Ideology adds another layer to party-line divides of most trusted and distrusted news sources

The divide widens over time

There is also evidence that suggests that these partisan divides have grown over the past five years, particularly with more Republicans voicing distrust in a number of sources. A comparison to a similar study of web-using U.S. adults conducted by the Center in 2014 finds that Republicans’ distrust increased for 15 of the 20 sources asked about in both years – with notable growth in Republicans’ distrust of CNN, The Washington Post, and The New York Times.

Democrats’ levels of trust and distrust in media sources have changed considerably less than Republicans’ during this time span. Even accounting for the modest methodological differences between the two studies, these differences hold. (Details about the two studies can be found in the methodology.)

All in all, it’s not that partisans live in entirely separate media bubbles when it comes to political news. There is some overlap in news sources, but determining the full extent of that overlap can be difficult to gauge. One factor is that getting news from a source does not always mean trusting that source. Indeed, the data reveals that while 24% of Republicans got news from CNN in the past week, roughly four-in-ten who did (39%) say they distrust the outlet. And of the 23% of Democrats who got political news from Fox News in the past week, nearly three-in-ten (27%) distrust it.

  1. Liberal Democrats are Democrats and independents who lean toward the Democratic Party who say they are liberal or very liberal. Conservative Republicans are Republicans or Republican leaners who say they are conservative or very conservative.