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Have news audiences become more polarised over time?

Have news audiences become more polarised over time?

Divisive political moments create a sense that we live in a time of heightened political polarisation. And partisan news media – combined with people’s well-documented preference for news outlets that share their political views – are often blamed for driving people further apart, leaving each of us with fundamentally different ideas about the key issues in society.

Implicit in this narrative is the notion, first, that everyone has a strong and exclusive preference for news outlets they agree with, second, that such preferences are intensifyin g over time, and third, that this process is mirrored across different countries and media systems.

The data we present in this chapter challenge all three of these assumptions. By mapping the degree of news audience polarisation in different countries, we show that polarisation is generally low because most news outlets attract mixed and/or centrist audiences, that there are large differences in news audience polarisation by country, and that levels of news audience polarisation have changed little since 2016. At the same time, we also see that the audience profile of some individual outlets has changed markedly, and that national patterns of polarisation to some extent map onto how audiences themselves see the media landscape in their country.

How we measure news audience polarisation

The approach we use to map news audience polarisation builds on work we first introduced in the 2017 Digital News Report, with the specific method described in a peer-reviewed academic journal article (Fletcher et al. 2020). In short, we compare the left–right make-up of each news outlet’s combined online and offline audience to the left–right make-up of the national population, allowing us to see whether each outlet’s audience skews left or skews right from the population average, and by how much. Using this measure, a score of -0.50 indicates that an outlet has an audience entirely made up of people who self-identify with the political left, 0.50 indicates an audience entirely made up of people on the right, and 0 an audience that matches the population. Then, in each country, we plot the audience for every outlet onto a single map, creating an audience-centric overview of the national media landscape. Finally, the level of news audience polarisation in each country is the average distance between outlet audiences (computed using the standard deviation), weighted by audience size so that larger outlets count for more.1

News audience polarisation today

We can start by mapping news audience polarisation based on our most recent data from 2022. In the UK, as we have seen before, some newspaper outlets like the Guardian have a more left-leaning audience compared to the national population, whereas others – like the Daily Mail – have an audience that skews right. The largest bubble on the map, which represents the audience for BBC News, is much closer to the mid-point, indicating a mixed and/or centrist audience that closely resembles the political make-up of the UK as a whole.

News audience polarisation varies by country

The UK has a relatively high level of news audience polarisation. The spread of the bubbles in the next chart shows that news audience polarisation is higher than in Norway and Germany, but lower than in the USA – where there is no large outlet in the middle of the map, highlighting the importance of public service media as a central anchor in much of Europe (though local news media, which we do not plot here, may partly fulfil this role in the USA). News audiences are less polarised in Norway, but while most traditional newspaper and broadcast brands have mixed and/or centrist audiences, they have recently been joined by several partisan/alternative brands – like Document.no and HRS – that have audiences with a stronger political skew – occupying space further from the centre of the map. In Germany, although some new digital-born brands have emerged in recent years, audiences for most outlets are predominantly centrist. This is partly because fewer people self-identify with either the left or the right in Germany, precluding very high levels of news audience polarisation along this dimension (though, of course, both the public and news audiences may be polarised along different dimensions).

We can compute a news audience polarisation score for each country – based on the standard deviation of outlet audiences, weighted by their size – that reflects the degree to which polarisation approaches a theoretical maximum, where only outlets with an entirely left-leaning and entirely right-leaning outlets exist, with nothing in between. This allows us to more easily compare across countries, but it also highlights that in most countries news audience polarisation is low. In Germany, for example, polarisation is just 10% of what it could be, and even in the USA (34%), polarisation is far from the theoretical limit.

Is news audience polarisation on the rise?

To explore whether news audience polarisation is growing, we can compare the most recent data with those from 2016 – the first point at which we started asking respondents whether they self-identify politically with the left or the right outside of the UK and the USA.

At least in the four countries we focus on here, news audience polarisation has not increased substantially – if at all – in the last six years. The most striking aspect of the maps is how little they have changed over time. Across all four countries, news audience polarisation has changed by 3pp or less since 2016, indicating only minimal shifts in audience behaviour.

These figures are derived from maps that only include outlets asked about in both the 2016 and 2022 surveys, but much of the time this will not accurately reflect the emergence of newer, and often more partisan, digital-born brands (or the closure of legacy brands, though this is less common). If we include these, the numbers change slightly, but the difference between 2016 and 2022 remains 4pp or less – a difference that could just as easily be the result of random noise as real change in audience polarisation. It seems, then, that patterns of news audience polarisation are stable (at least in the short term), and the emergence of partisan digital-born brands has minimal effect due to the small sizes of their audience.

The changing audience for different outlets

If we take a closer look at what is happening within each country, we can observe some interesting shifts in the audiences for individual outlets. For example, in the UK, while BBC News has maintained its large mixed/centrist audience, the audience for the Mirror has become significantly less left-leaning over time. Similarly, the audience for The Times has become less right-leaning. At the same time, the audiences for other outlets have become more partisan – and as has already been mentioned, new partisan/alternative brands like GB News have entered the market – meaning news audience polarisation has remained quite stable in the aggregate.

It is not possible to use the data to say for certain what’s behind these shifts, and the reasons are likely to vary for each outlet. The audience profile for some outlets may have changed due to the ongoing shift away from offline consumption to online access. This may be particularly important for outlets that reach more people via platforms like Facebook and Google, where processes like incidental exposure – where people are shown news articles when they are using the platform for other reasons – and automated serendipity – where algorithms surface news from outlets people wouldn’t normally use – render partisan selective exposure less important. Paywalls could also have an effect if the profile of those willing to pay is different from the typical audience. And, of course, some outlets may have made a conscious decision to adjust their editorial line, meaning that they attract a different user base.

Perceptions of news outlet polarisation

To complement our data on news audience behaviour, we also asked a new question this year on the extent to which people perceive the news landscape in their country to be polarised. Perceived polarisation is an established concept in political science, referring to the extent to which people believe political groups or parties to be different from one another – regardless of the actual similarities or differences in their policies. As such, we asked respondents: ‘In your view, how politically close together or far apart are the main news organisations in your country?’ with response options ranging from ‘Very far apart’ to ‘Very close together’. It is important to keep in mind that polarisation (which is normally seen as bad) shares some qualities (e.g. absence of homogeneity) with concepts like diversity and plurality (which are normally thought of as good). However, given that these typically refer to the extent to which all views are represented equally rather than the distance between groups, the question wording gets us closer to polarisation.

Perceived news outlet polarisation is highest in Poland (54%), Spain (49%), Thailand (48%), and Argentina (47%) – where around half think that the main news organisations are politically quite far apart or very far apart. The lowest figures are in South Korea (15%), Portugal (16%), and Singapore (16%). At the regional level, perceived polarisation is, on average, lower in Northern Europe, but higher in Southern Europe and Latin America.

To some extent, these patterns map onto what we might expect based on rules about impartiality, levels of press freedom, and political parallelism – the degree to which the media outlets map onto political parties. And at least in the four countries we focus on in this chapter, levels of news audience polarisation match levels of perceived polarisation, with people in the UK and the US perceiving more polarisation than those in Germany and Norway. But there are also many reasons to expect people’s perceptions to diverge from our expectations. For example, we might infer from the hostile media phenomenon that people who believe the media to be biased against people like them might see news organisations as ‘all the same’ and thus close together – even if the media landscape itself is polarised. At the same time, people may believe there is more polarisation than there is because this is a narrative which has been reinforced by politicians and the media. In this sense, perceived polarisation is similar to trust in the news, whereby perceptions of trust and actual trustworthiness may be quite different, but people’s perceptions are nonetheless important to understand because they can have real consequences.

Conclusions

In this chapter we have described how, perhaps contrary to expectations, news audience polarisation is often relatively low (especially outside of the USA), is broadly stable over time, and varies significantly by country. In many countries, new partisan/alternative brands have entered the market, but because their audiences are typically small and because most people still gravitate towards established outlets, their influence on aggregate patterns of audience behaviour is minimal – and in some cases is offset by increasingly mixed/centrist audiences for larger brands.

At the same time, we have seen how audiences for some individual outlets can change, even in a relatively short space of time. News organisations, many of which have become more audience-focused in recent years, may find it useful to monitor the changing left–right profile of their audience, but this is just one of many possible dimensions along which they can map their users – both political and non-political. The challenge is identifying the most useful, and thinking through how audience profile relates to business and editorial strategy and the changing ways people arrive at and access news – and where this leaves them positioned in the national news landscape.

Stepping back, the overall picture we describe may offer some reassurance to those worried about the effects of digital media on society. But it is important to also keep in mind that, although patterns of audience behaviour may appear stable in the short term, the pattern over several decades may be very different. Furthermore, stability at the level of the mass public can also mask increasing polarisation among partisans. All this aside, even if audience behaviour changes little, news content from the same outlets may simultaneously be more partisan. And although smaller, more partisan outlets may have minimal direct reach, they may still exert indirect influence on political elites and media coverage. Audience behaviour certainly matters, but it is only one piece of a much larger puzzle.

Footnotes

1 For more precise details on how news audience polarisation is computed see Fletcher at al. 2020. Note: Analysis was performed on unweighted data.