Voters still tune in to traditional media

Facebook and Internet portals such as Google and Yahoo increasingly provide Americans their gateway for news, but the bulk of voters who catch up on current events daily turn to traditional sources, particularly local television stations, according to a nationwide poll.

Traditional news sources in print and on TV also remain more trusted than the burgeoning alternative ecosystem of blogs, late-night comedy shows and social media outlets, the University of Southern California Annenberg/Los Angeles Times Poll on Politics and the Press found.

The survey confirms a few widely suspected divides: Democrats and the young tend to be more trusting of a variety of media, while Republicans and older news consumers are more skeptical. Despite mixed feelings, though, the voters surveyed said by more than 2 to 1 that they got useful and important information from the media.

The USC/Times poll found that with a welter of new media alternatives available, there was only one source that a majority of registered voters turned to at least daily: local television news. Fifty-eight percent of those surveyed said they watched their local TV news that often. That gives local stations considerably more reach than the second-most-common news source: local newspapers, in both their print and online versions. About 39 percent of those surveyed said they routinely turned to the local paper.

Although younger voters turn increasingly to nontraditional media sources, they make a distinction about trustworthiness. Among those age 18 to 29, almost 1 in 5 said they got news daily or more often from Comedy Central hosts Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. But when asked to rate the trustworthiness of news sources, those young viewers rated the two funny men far lower than such traditional mainstays as local newspapers and local TV.

The results help explain an enduring phenomenon, even of this Digital Age presidential race: the candidates’ routine willingness to grant interviews to regional television outlets. President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney spend good chunks of many days connecting with local TV news stations in person or by satellite.

On Thursday, for example, Romney and running mate Paul D. Ryan taped a total of six local TV segments between them – hitting key markets in the battleground states of Iowa, North Carolina, Ohio, Colorado and Nevada.

The brief sessions allow politicians to connect with voters via their favorite, and most trusted, news source and to target crucial communities in battleground states. An added bonus for the candidates, if not for voters: Local television reporters and anchors tend to be less confrontational than the national media.

Following local TV news and local newspapers as the most popular outlets for those who seek news at least once a day: the national broadcast networks (NBC, ABC and CBS), with 35 percent of voters tuning in routinely; Fox News at 33 percent; network morning shows at 28 percent; Facebook at 25 percent; news aggregators such as Google News and Yahoo News at 25 percent; CNN at 21 percent; and MSNBC at 19 percent.

For those 18 to 29 years old, the poll found that 52 percent got news via Facebook – the top source of news for the young, followed by local TV at 37 percent.

The survey did not determine what types of information teens and 20-somethings obtain via the social media giant. That could vary from the opinions of friends and family to stories from traditional media outlets — virtually all of which now aggressively pitch their work via Facebook.

Only 5 percent of those 64 and older, by contrast, said they learned about the day’s events via Facebook. The retirement-age demographic was most strongly committed to longtime mainstays – 71 percent saying they went to local television daily, or more often, for news; 58 percent to their local newspaper; and 53 percent to the nightly network news.

The audience also segregates itself based on political identity. Nearly half of self-identified Republicans, for example, said they went to Fox News at least once a day, compared with 21 percent of Democrats and just under one-third of those with no party affiliation. That makes the conservative-leaning cable outlet the second-most-common news source for Republicans, behind only local TV.

While drawing a considerably smaller audience overall, the increasingly liberal MSNBC attracts 30 percent of Democrats, 15 percent of independents and 10 percent of Republicans, the USC/Times survey found.

A plurality of voters consider the news media too liberal, although that question also divided respondents sharply along partisan lines. Among Republicans, 70 percent called the media too liberal, compared with just 16 percent of Democrats and 40 percent of independents.

The two parties are asymmetrical on that issue. While Republicans tend to see the media as liberal, a plurality of Democrats surveyed, 44 percent, see it as “balanced,” with just 20 percent saying the media are too conservative.

The partisan divide extends to the public’s opinions on which news outlets are most trustworthy. Republicans rate Fox News as the media fixture they trust most, while Democrats ranked PBS and the nightly network news programs as the most believable, just slightly ahead of their local TV stations and newspapers.

Poll respondents were asked to rate news organizations on a scale of 0 to 10, with 10 reserved for their most trusted news sources. Across the entire voting population, traditional sources — led by local television and newspapers, PBS and national newspapers — all received average ratings of 6 or above, the top scores.

Colbert and Stewart were rated at 3.9 overall. Other nontraditional sources rated lower, including Facebook (3), YouTube (2.7) and Twitter (2.3).

Republicans rated Fox News a 7 in trustworthiness, while Democrats rated it 4.1. The most trusted sources for Democrats were PBS and the three network nightly news programs. Both of those drew a 7.1 rating from Democrats but a 5 or less from Republicans.

Opposing partisan camps also have strong opinions about certain positions on the radio dial. Liberals loathe conservative talk radio, while conservatives talk about the need to cut government funding for NPR, which they consider too far left.

The USC/Times survey found 19 percent of voters listened to NPR daily or more than once a day, compared with 12 percent who said they listened that often to conservative talk radio hosts such as Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. Among the voters at large, the public radio operation scored a 5.3 on the index of public trust, compared with a 3.8 for the radio hosts of the right. Among Republicans, conservative radio received a 6.2 rating and NPR received 4.4. Among Democrats, the ratings were reversed: 1.7 and 6.2.

The survey was conducted Aug. 13 to 19 for the Times and USC by the Democratic firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research and the Republican firm American Viewpoint. It surveyed 1,009 registered voters and has a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points.

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