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Public Attitude

Public Attitudes

By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

What do people think of cable news?

A look at the survey data of public attitudes and public use of the medium reveals signs of declining use, some declining trust, and in some ways less separation between the audiences of the three main cable channels than one might expect.

Overall, the number of people who say they regularly get their news from cable channels decreased in 2006, as it did at all the other news outlets. Just over a third, 34%, described themselves as regular viewers of cable news, a drop of 4 percentage points from 2004.1

What Do They think?

Whether coincidentally or not, people have also become more skeptical of whether they can trust cable news.

Even CNN, which leads all other outlets in credibility, doesn’t command the level of trust it did a decade ago. Its credibility ratings have been slipping steadily since 1993 (the channel was launched in 1981). In 1998, 42% of all those surveyed said they “believed all or most” of what they saw on CNN, the primary metric Pew has used to measure credibility. In 2006, the figure was 28%.

Still, CNN remains the most trusted source among those surveyed, just slightly higher than the next most trusted sources — CBS’s “60 Minutes” (27%), C-SPAN (25%) and Fox News (25%).

Fox News, on the other hand, has a loyal audience whose belief in what they see on the channel remains unchanged. The number of people who believe all or most of what they see on the channel didn’t fall in 2006, making Fox News one of the few media outlets not to have suffered a decline.2

Cable News Believability
1985 – 2006, by Channel
pie chart sample
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Pew Research Center for the People and the Press
Note: Fox News & MSNBC were launched in 1996 & only included in 2000 in the survey

A Reuters/BBC poll released in May 2006, found similar levels of credibility. CNN and Fox were tied when Americans were asked to name their most trusted specific news sources. Both generated a rating of 11% — modest figures, but higher than those of other media outlets.3

Those ratings for the two channels don’t reflect, however, the partisan leanings of their viewers. In the Pew Survey responses, Republicans said they believed Fox News more, Democrats CNN.

Over time, however, Democrats have seen both news sources as less credible. In 2006, only about a third of Democrats (32%) gave CNN the highest marks for credibility, down from almost half (48%) just six years earlier. One in five (22%) believed most of what they saw on Fox, down from better than one in four (27%) in 2000.

Republicans, in contrast, have come to trust Fox more in the last six years, while growing more skeptical of CNN. Indeed, in 2006, Republicans were as trusting of Fox (32% believed most of what they heard, up from 26% in 2000) as Democrats were of CNN. And Republicans were just as skeptical of CNN as Democrats were of Fox (just 22% believed most of what the channel said, down from 33% in 2000).

In short, the newest data on public attitudes seem to put in clear relief the idea that Republicans gravitate to Fox and Democrats to CNN. Their impressions of the two channels are almost mirror images of each other.

Who Is Watching Cable News?

Are those reverse images also reflected in the audience profiles of the news channels?

The biennial study on media consumption produced by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press may also be the deepest source for understanding who the cable news viewer is. The survey probes the media habits of more than 3,000 people every two years.

Using its findings, the average news viewer emerges as just that — average. Regular viewers of cable news are neither richer nor better educated nor better informed than regular users of other news outlets.4 The regular cable news viewer can be personified as a married, middle-aged man who has at least 14 years of education. He earns well, with a median income of $62,000, and tends to live in the suburbs. He has a high degree of hard-news consumption, and that links to his moderately high knowledge of current affairs. He is fairly adaptive to technology (more likely than other news consumers to own a PDA, iPod or Tivo). Compared to viewers of other media, the cable news viewer earns more (local and network news viewers have a median income of $45,000) and is also much more adaptive to technology. He is also younger than viewers of network news (who are nearly 53 years of age). The average cable viewer is 47.5, and there are only marginal differences by channel.

How does this reflect in his political leanings? He is more often than not a political independent and describes himself as having a moderate ideology.

Are there any differences between regular viewers of the three cable channels? The biggest difference is political ideology. After that, however, the differences may not be as great as some might imagine.

Using Pew’s media consumption survey, we have compiled a profile of the average viewer of different media outlets and sectors.

The average viewer of Fox News identifies himself as conservative in ideology (although he classifies his party affiliation as independent).

The average CNN viewer, in contrast, self-identifies as being a moderate, but also tends to be registered as independent.

The MSNBC viewer tends to be a Democrat, and describes himself as a political moderate.

Fox News viewers are the oldest at 48.7 years, followed by CNN (47.1) and MSNBC (46.5). Of the three, the CNN viewers have the lowest median income, $45,000 a year. In contrast, both MSNBC and Fox News viewers make $62,000.

One other difference between the viewers of the three channels is their news knowledge. In a fairly simple test, regular viewers of CNN were able to answer more current-affairs questions correctly than viewers of Fox News or MSNBC.5 Out of the three questions on current affairs that were asked in the survey, CNN viewers got two correct. The Fox News and MSNBC viewers just got one correct. (The questions asked respondents to name which party had a majority in the House of Representatives, the current U.S. secretary of state, and the president of Russia). That puts CNN viewers on par with viewers of network news, but more knowledgeable than local-news viewers (who got just one question correct).

What does this audience profile portend? One possibility is that the audience is fracturing, with the most liberal audiences heading to MSNBC, a more moderate group at CNN and the more conservative at Fox. But that would probably be an oversimplification. The networks are also dividing by style and even somewhat by topic. MSNBC is moving to make politics a brand, with a large dose of opinion and personality. CNN has moved further away from talk on its main channel, but toward it on Headline News. And Fox is holding steady. And the audience declines across the board suggest that the three channels may be competing for each others’ audiences in the months to come.