A while back, my colleague and friend, Pat Oles, called me on something. For years, in both classes and in person, I’ve been citing the fact that a plurality of Americans get their news from local TV news. Sometime this past fall, Pat said, “I think your data are out of date,” arguing that social media and the Internet had become more common as news sources.
He was right.
In a post on SocImages this week, co-written with Evan Stewart and Ryan Larson, we use data from the General Social Survey (GSS) and the Congressional Cooperative Election Survey (CCES) to examine the trends over time in where Americans get their news. And Pat is correct that, as of 2016, the Internet had overtaken TV as Americans’ primary source of news.
Still, the CCES data show that TV news is far from dead, serving as a news source for three-quarters of Americans – not much lower than it was a decade ago. Of those TV news watchers, more than three-quarters are watching at least some local TV news. Bottom-line: TV news, including local news, continues to be important even as the Internet has grown as a news source.
But in an era where Internet news sources like Facebook and Twitter, Breitbart and Vice, and Pod Save America and The Richocet Podcast seem so central to Americans’ media diets, why was I so eager to argue for the continuing importance of TV in conversations with Pat and others? Even if TV is now a less common source of news than the Internet, I see two reasons that we ought to be paying more attention to TV than we do.
First, I tend to emphasize the role of TV news as a counter-weight to a mostly wrong set of ideas about the Internet. Since the 1990s, people have been concerned about the role of the Internet in producing echo chambers or, in the current parlance, “filter bubbles.” The argument makes intuitive sense. The Internet era is also a period of time of rising political polarization and who among us hasn’t unfollowed a few “friends” because of noxious political views? But actual studies on the Internet and polarization have not revealed a consistent relationship between the two. Moreover, the most polarized people (older Americans) use the Internet the least! In fact, the evidence is much stronger that cable TV like Fox News and local TV stations owned by conservative parent companies, like Sinclair Broadcasting, contribute to more extreme political views and polarization. It’s easy to look at charts of rising polarization and growing Internet use and assume causation, but research has shown us that TV is a more likely suspect.
A second reason that I tend to point to the continuing prominence of local TV news is because it plays an unusual and important role within our media ecosystem. With newspapers folding, cutbacks in their newsrooms, and a greater reliance on wire stories, we have seen a decline in local news in many communities around the country. Some places are now regarded as “news deserts.” In this context, local TV news serves a particularly important role in providing coverage of local politics, issues, and civic happenings. Because many people tune in to local TV news for non-political coverage, like sports and weather, local broadcasters garner more political independents and politically disengaged people than cable news or Internet sources.
That’s precisely why the story about Sinclair Broadcasting’s “must-read” political messages was so important. Nobody watches Fox News or MSNBC without knowingly selecting their opinion-laced coverage. But many people tuning in to Sinclair affiliates were looking for high school basketball highlights and got an unexpected dose of propaganda.
We’ve just seen several days of Congress (rightly) grilling Facebook. But if we are to rebuilt trust in the media and other transpartisan institutions, if we’re going to find space for civic disagreement about contentious issues, if we want to stem the tide of misinformation and antagonism, we cannot just talk about the Internet. We need to pay attention to TV news.
So, Pat was right. But TV news isn’t dead yet.