Mapping How People Get Their (Political) News

New data visualizations from the Computational Social Science Lab show how Americans consume news.

By Hailey Reissman

With political polarization in the American public at a record high, determining where Americans get their political news is crucial to making sense of the impact of echo chambers, fake news, and misinformation on Americans’ democratic decision making and this ideological divide.

Researchers at the Computational Social Science (CSS) Lab at the University of Pennsylvania do just that, sifting through data on Americans’ media consumption, both on television and online, to determine just how partisan Americans’ news diets are and how much “fake news” they consume.

Today the lab, led by Stevens University Professor Duncan Watts, launches the Mapping the (Political) Information Ecosystem Dashboard — a set of interactive data visualizations that replicate and extend the findings of two previous lab publications about news in the U.S., one focusing on fake news and the other on partisan news diets online and on TV

For these studies, the research team analyzed the television and online news consumption of thousands of Americans from 2016 to 2019 using data from Nielsen, whose representative panels measure the media habits of American households. The dashboard’s visualizations will be updated monthly based on new data from the company’s TV and online audience panels.

The CSS Lab research team, which includes Annenberg Research Scientist Homa Hosseinmardi and doctoral student Baird Howland, assigned left-to-right partisan rankings to channels and websites and analyzed over three billion distinct viewing and browsing events. They looked at how frequently and for how long a person visited a site, watched a TV show, how often they clicked or saw something new, whether they watched the same channel for months or for just a week.

The team found that TV news, rather than online news, is the main driver of partisan news content, that television news consumers are several times more likely to maintain their partisan news diets month-over-month than online news consumers, and that fake news comprises only 0.15% of Americans’ daily media diet.

“Because we can continually update our analysis with newly arriving data, we have the ability to create something interactive,” Howland says. “With the dashboard, people will be able to see trends evolve in real time.”

News Diets and Echo Chambers

Through the dashboard, the public can see news consumption broken down by demographics, partisanship, location, and more.

One visualization allows people to look at the average time Americans’ spent watching news and non-news media content (e.g. entertainment, sports, weather, etc.) on four different mediums: TV, desktop, mobile (phone) and mobile (tablet), organized by location, age group, gender, and ethnicity.

“The clearest pattern is that older Americans spend dramatically more time consuming news than younger Americans,” Howland says.

Another visualization shows the extent of political “echo chambers” in the U.S. overall, measured by highly-partisan news consumption.

Since people began getting news delivered via social media, pundits and researchers have expressed concern about online “echo chambers” — the phenomenon of strictly consuming media that reflects your own political beliefs. But the lab’s 2022 research study, ”Quantifying partisan news diets in Web and TV audiences,” found that cable TV is more responsible for the partisan segregation in news audiences than any combination of far-right or far-left sites circulating the internet.

A third visualization shows echo chambers by geographical location, letting users dive into details like the most-watched news channels and programs per state. 

For example, in Pennsylvania, 9.1% of the population has a right-leaning television news diet, while 10.4% of the population has a left-leaning television news diet.

“When we break the TV audience segregation measurements down, we see surprisingly minimal geographic variation,” Howland says. “When CNN is counted as left-wing partisan, the Fox News echo chamber still dominates that of the left in nearly every state, with New York and California being notable exceptions.”

The last visualization shows how people change their news consumption habits over time, by mapping archetypes of news consumption.

Penn Media Accountability Project

This is the lab's latest effort to distill a large quantity of information about the public's media habits into a clear, graphical interface, as part of the Penn Media Accountability Project (PennMAP).

A previous effort focused on political content on YouTube, drawing from a study that found that YouTube users’ own political interests and preferences play the primary role in what they choose to watch on the platform, not the site’s recommendation algorithm 

The Mapping the (Political) Information Ecosystem Dashboard was created by CSS Lab members Baird Howland, Delphine Gardiner, Yuxuan Zhang, Felippe Rodrigues, and Duncan J. Watts.

Disclaimer: All aggregation and analysis methods are by the CSS Lab. Nielsen does not provide ideological labels to TV programs nor does it define what programs are considered right-wing or left-wing. The conclusions drawn from the Nielsen data are those of the research team and do not reflect the views of Nielsen.