December 22, 2003

The 2004 presidential campaign is continuing the long-term shift in how the public gets its election news. Television news remains dominant, but there has been further erosion in the audience for broadcast TV news. The Internet, a relatively minor source for campaign news in 2000, is now on par with such traditional outlets as public television broadcasts, Sunday morning news programs and the weekly news magazines. And young people, by far the hardest to reach segment of the political news audience, are abandoning mainstream sources of election news and increasingly citing alternative outlets, including comedy shows such as the Daily Show and Saturday Night Live, as their source for election news.

Today’s fractionalized media environment has taken the heaviest toll on local news, network TV news and newspapers. Four years ago, nearly half of Americans (48%) said they regularly learned something about the presidential campaign from local TV news, more than any other news category. Local TV still leads, but now 42% say they routinely learn about the campaign from local television news. Declines among nightly network news and newspapers – the other leading outlets in 2000 – have been even more pronounced (10 points network news, nine points newspapers).

The Pew Research Center’s new survey on campaign news and political communication, conducted among 1,506 adults Dec. 19-Jan. 4, shows that cable news networks like CNN and Fox News have achieved only modest gains since 2000 as a regular source for campaign news (38% now, 34% in 2000). But as a consequence of the slippage among other major news sources, cable now trails only local TV news as a regular source for campaign information. In several key demographic categories – young people, college graduates and wealthy Americans – cable is the leading source for election news.

In that regard, the relative gains for the Internet are especially notable. While 13% of Americans regularly learn something about the election from the Internet, up from 9% at this point in the 2000 campaign, another 20% say they sometimes get campaign news from the Internet (up from 15%).

The survey shows that young people, in particular, are turning away from traditional media sources for information about the campaign. Just 23% of Americans age 18-29 say they regularly learn something about the election from the nightly network news, down from 39% in 2000. There also have been somewhat smaller declines in the number of young people who learn about the campaign from local TV news (down 13%) and newspapers (down 9%).

Cable news networks are the most frequently cited source of campaign news for young people, but the Internet and comedy programs also are important conduits of election news for Americans under 30. One-in-five young people say they regularly get campaign news from the Internet, and about as many (21%) say the same about comedy shows such as Saturday Night Live and the Daily Show. For Americans under 30, these comedy shows are now mentioned almost as frequently as newspapers and evening network news programs as regular sources for election news.

But people who regularly learn about the election from entertainment programs – whether young or not – are poorly informed about campaign developments. In general, Americans show little awareness of campaign events and key aspects of the candidates’ backgrounds: About three-in-ten (31%) can correctly identify Wesley Clark as the Democratic candidate who had served as an Army general and 26% know Richard Gephardt is the candidate who had served as House majority leader. People who say they regularly learn about the campaign from entertainment programs are among the least likely to correctly answer these questions. In contrast, those who learn about the campaign on the Internet are considerably more knowledgeable than the average, even when their higher level of education is taken into account.

TV Still Dominates

While cable news and the Internet have become more important in informing Americans about the election, television as a whole remains the public’s main source of campaign news. When individual TV outlets are tested, 22% say they get most of their news from CNN, 20% cite Fox, and somewhat fewer cite local news or one of the network news broadcasts.

By this measure, newspapers, radio and Internet are viewed as secondary sources of campaign news. At this stage, the Internet remains a secondary source – even among Internet users. About three-quarters of Americans who use the Internet (76%) say television is their first or second main source for news about the campaign (37% cite newspapers, 20% the Internet). Still, the number of Americans overall who mention the Internet as a main source – as first or second mentions – has nearly doubled since 2000 (from 7% to 13%).

Bias Concerns Grow Among Democrats

The survey also finds that the nation’s deep political divisions are reflected in public views of campaign coverage. Overall, about as many Americans now say news organizations are biased in favor of one of the two parties as say there is no bias in election coverage (39% vs. 38%). This marks a major change from previous surveys taken since 1987. In 1987, 62% thought election coverage was free of partisan bias. That percentage has steadily declined to 53% in 1996, 48% in 2000, and 38% today.

Compared with 2000 a much larger number of Democrats believe that coverage of the campaign is tilted in favor of the Republicans (29% now, 19% in 2000). But Republicans continue to see more bias in campaign coverage than do Democrats. More than four-in-ten Republicans (42%) see news coverage of the campaign as biased in favor of Democrats; that compares with 37% in 2000. Among independents there also has been a significant decline in the percentage who say election news is free of bias (43% now, 51% then), though independents remain divided over whether the coverage favors Democrats or Republicans.

The survey finds that two-thirds of Americans (67%) prefer to get news from sources that have no particular political point of view, while a quarter favors news that reflects their political leanings. Independents stand out for their strong preference of news that contains no particular viewpoint (74% vs. 67% of Republicans and 60% of Democrats).

With the race for the Democratic nomination about to enter a critical phase, the campaign has yet to break out in terms of public interest. But attention is not notably lower than at a comparable point in the last presidential contest. Nearly half of Americans (46%) are following news about the nomination contest very (14%) or fairly (32%) closely; in January 2000, slightly more (53%) said they were following the campaign, but at that point there were nomination contests in both parties.

The survey also finds:

Political endorsements – whether made by politicians, celebrities or advocacy organizations – continue to have little impact on most Americans. Moreover, among the small number swayed by such endorsements, the effect is mostly mixed. On balance, endorsements by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and former Vice President Al Gore would have a somewhat negative impact, although most people say they would not be affected either way. An endorsement by a person’s priest or minister is a net positive, but 80% say such an endorsement would not matter (up from 70% in 2000). Newspaper endorsements are also less influential than four years ago, and dissuade as many Americans as they persuade.

Internet users rely on the web sites of major media outlets for campaign news, rather than Internet-based news operations. Among Americans who use the Internet, 40% say they regularly or sometimes learn about the campaign from the news pages of web portals like AOL and Yahoo.com, and 38% say the same about web sites of major news organizations like CNN and the New York Times. Just 11% regularly or sometimes learn about the campaign from online news magazines and opinion sites such as Slate.com.

Since 2000, there has been sharp decline in the percentage of Republicans who say they regularly learn about the campaign from daily newspapers, as well as local and nightly network TV news. And with the rise of Fox News the political profile of the campaign news audience has become more partisan. Fully twice as many Republicans as Democrats say they get most of their election news from Fox News (29% vs. 14%). Significantly more Democrats than Republicans get most of their election news from one of the three major networks (40% vs. 24%).

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