Americans' news consumption habits are deeply polarized. Liberals tend to use a certain set of news sources; conservatives, another set. A recent series of Gallup/Knight Foundation surveys, including interviews with more than 13,500 U.S. adults, finds that polarized news media habits seem to have an independent effect on the way Americans view the news media.
News consumption diet -- the top news sources people use -- is strongly related to opinions about the news media. Only 3% of Americans with a conservative news diet have a "very favorable" or "favorable" opinion of the media, compared with 56% of those with a liberal news diet and 34% with a mixed news diet. For more information on how Gallup categorizes news diets, see the online appendix (PDF download).
A similar relationship exists between news diet and trust in national news organizations, suggesting that favorability of the news media and trust in national news organizations measure the same underlying attitudes. Meanwhile, 27% of those with a conservative news diet express "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of trust in local news organizations, but many more with a mixed (48%) or liberal news diet (56%) say the same.
Another important predictor of media favorability and trust in news organizations is the amount of attention people pay to the news. Heavy news consumers -- those who pay "a great deal" of attention to local, national or international news -- are twice as likely as less engaged news consumers to have a "very favorable" or "favorable" opinion of the media (45% vs. 21%, respectively). Similarly, 54% of heavy news consumers express "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of trust in local news organizations, while 35% of those who pay less attention say the same.
Yet, the effect of heavy news consumption does not increase favorability toward the media or trust in news organizations equally across the various news diets, according to a statistical analysis that accounts for the effects of several demographic and attitudinal characteristics like partisanship and ideology.
The following chart shows the estimated favorability toward the media that a U.S. adult who is moderate and independent would have, based on news diet. As above, such an individual would hold a less favorable opinion of the media if they have a conservative news diet. Importantly, favorability toward the media slightly decreases if this individual has a conservative news diet and is a heavy news consumer rather than a less engaged consumer. In contrast, this same individual will hold a more favorable view toward the media if they consume a mixed or liberal news diet -- and this is even more the case if they are a heavy consumer of news.
Views of local news organizations reveal a similar pattern. Regardless of how much news this hypothetical moderate independent consumes, their trust in local news organizations will be roughly the same if they consume a conservative news diet. In contrast, this person's trust will increase if they are a heavy consumer of news with a mixed or liberal news diet, compared with a less engaged news consumer with the same mixed or liberal news diet.
A strictly conservative news diet appears to suppress the greater trust in local news organizations that often accompanies heavy news consumption. Perceived bias -- an important driver for distrust in news sources -- may partly account for why those in a conservative news ecosystem exhibit less trust in local media organizations. Six in 10 Americans with a conservative news diet say local news organizations in their area lean liberal, whereas 35% of those with a liberal news diet say these news organizations lean conservative.1
Other studies have found a connection between a conservative news diet and low media trust, specifically involving a link between conservative talk radio exposure and low media trust. These results also suggest that the general skepticism Americans with a conservative news diet hold toward the national news media might be seeping into attitudes of trust in local news organizations.
NewsLens -- an Online Experimental Platform
The relationships described above are not causal evidence that a conservative news media diet reduces trust in news organizations. A third factor, which is unknown or not easily measured, could be related to both trust in the media and media consumption habits, and could account for the difference between those two factors.
Alternatively, the causal relationship may go in the other direction. Americans choose to get news from some sources and not others partly because the portrayal of events and topics align with their preexisting attitudes and beliefs. Non-experimental survey data that capture attitudes and self-reported behaviors cannot rule out these alternative explanations.
To explore the causal effect of news consumption habits, Gallup, in partnership with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, will launch an online experimental platform called NewsLens. This news aggregator website will capture users' news consumption habits by tracking what articles they read, like, share and rate. These actions are complemented by surveys on the platform that capture opinions about the media and policy issues. In this way, NewsLens will advance knowledge about how media consumption habits shape attitudes and behaviors.
Polarized news consumption habits lead to a split-screen phenomenon, in which Americans are exposed to different narratives of the same events, based on the information sources they use. These narratives can influence people's opinions, beliefs and behaviors. Previous studies demonstrate the effect media exposure can have on important matters like voting intention, voter turnout and increased political engagement.
Similarly, consumption of certain news sources is related to trust in news organizations. Democrats tend to occupy an information ecosystem that reinforces their general trust of the news media, while Republicans inhabit one that amplifies their general distrust. These information pipelines create additional barriers to forming a common, fact-based narrative when interpreting important events.
 This relationship between news diet and perceived bias of local news organizations remains significant at p<.05 level after controlling for salient covariates like partisanship and ideology.
Learn more about classifications of Americans' news diets (PDF download).