Much discussion about the 2016 American presidential election touched on the role of digital technologies. Social media and web-based fake news are popular (if partial) explanations of Trump’s victory. Yet if a new Pew study is right, those sources only played a marginal role.
Instead, the most popular way Americans learned about the election was… television.
Yes, that great 20th-century medium, now the purveyor of American mock “news”, remains our main communication node.
Let me pull out the study’s most interesting parts.
First, to Pew’s main claim. When asked by pollsters, respondents from both major political parties preferred television. There are some differences between Trump and Clinton supporters, unsurprisingly:
Not even 10% used Facebook. In contrast,
When voters were asked to write in their “main source” for election news, four-in-ten Trump voters named Fox News. The next most-common main source among Trump voters, CNN, was named by only 8% of his voters.
Clinton voters, however, did not coalesce around any one source. CNN was named more than any other, but at 18% had nowhere near the dominance that Fox News had among Trump voters. Instead, the choices of Clinton voters were more spread out. MSNBC, Facebook, local television news, NPR, ABC, The New York Times and CBS were all named by between 5% and 9% of her voters.
The old media are back! they never died! Talk about the shock of the old (credit for phrase goes to David Edgerton). It’s not just the technology, but the specific providers as well:
The “main news sources” mentioned by at least 3% of each voting group stand out in another way: they consist entirely of longstanding national news brands – cable and broadcast TV, newspapers, radio – along with local media and Facebook.
Unsurprisingly, Fox was the most popular channel for Republicans.
Second, if we rewind history a little bit further, Pew found some differences between news media habits of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders supporters. Clinton voters preferred tv more than their opponents, who tended to use online resources somewhat more:
Over half of Democratic voters who had supported Clinton in the primaries (56%) got most of their general election news from television. But this falls to 37% among Democrats who had supported someone else in the primaries. Instead, these Democrats were more likely to say they got most of their general election news from either news websites or social networking sites (48%, compared with 28% of Clinton-supporting Democrats)
Reading this, I thought I recognized an echo of the age-media habit correlation. Pew anticipated me:
These differences in media use between the primary supporters of Clinton and those of other Democratic candidates are consistent with the age profiles of both groups of supporters. On average, Clinton’s primary backers were older than Democratic voters who backed Bernie Sanders, and – on the whole – older Americans are more likely than younger Americans to turn to television and print sources as their main sources of news.
Does this suggest Bernie backers were – are – the wave of the future? It seems so, if the social trends linking age and media use continue. In the meantime, tv is definitely the wave of the present.