Looking Closer at that Pew Report on Campaign News Sourcing: What The Numbers Really Say (or don’t say)…
Cable news channels are now the most prominent sources of campaign news for the American people, narrowly passing local television stations for the first time, according to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center.
It’s not that cable news is rising as a news source — it isn’t. But local stations, network news programs and local newspapers are declining in relevance, the survey indicates.
And there’s this…
The report affirms that cable news — led by the Fox News Channel, which is the No. 1 channel of its kind — is driving the national political conversation, at least among those who care to have the conversation nearly a year before Election Day.
Fox News declined to comment in advance of the report’s release, but executives at the two other main cable news channels, CNN and MSNBC, said that the report reflected an overall migration from broadcast television to cable TV.
“There’s just a deeper level and a more constant level of coverage of politics on cable news than there is on broadcast or on local,” said Mark Whitaker, the managing editor for CNN Worldwide.
“How are we different? We give depth,” said Phil Griffin, the president of MSNBC, which has added a number of left-leaning news talk shows since the last presidential election in 2008.
I’ll return to Griffin and Whitaker’s over-eager victory laps in a bit. Getting back to the Pew study, I’ll give Stelter credit for correctly noting at the top that this isn’t a case of cable news momentum but rather declines by everyone else. But I wish he had dug a little deeper into the report. I did and found something that merited notation and is the reason why I’m not particularly excited about this study and why I think its significance is probably overstated, especially for cable news.
Taken from PEW’s Topline .PDF file
Q.45 Please tell me how often, if ever, you LEARN SOMETHING about the PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN or the CANDIDATES from each of the following sources. First, — Do you regularly, sometimes, hardly ever, or never LEARN something about the presidential campaign or candidates from [ITEM]?
There are only two cable news related answers here but the results are very odd…
c. Cable news networks such as CNN, MSNBC and the FOX news CABLE channel
Hardly Ever 13%
Don’t Know 4%
k.F1 Cable news talk shows, such those hosted by Bill O’Reilly, Chris Matthews, Sean Hannity or Rachel Maddow
Hardly Ever 12%
Don’t Know 5%
What makes these results odd is that the “cable news talk shows” are the shows which have the most eyeballs. More eyeballs means more resources, more prominence, and more emphasis by the cable networks. Ever since FNC raced past CNN ten years ago, primetime has been where the big battles are waged and where all the cable news buzz is generated. And yet despite the buzz, despite the ratings, despite the profits – despite all that the cable networks hold dear, the viewing public isn’t tuning in to learn anything. Indeed 49%, almost half, never learn a thing about Campaign 2012 and the candidates if this survey is to be believed.
Again, I go back to what Phil Griffin told Brian Stelter…
“How are we different? We give depth,”
Not to these viewers apparently. Half of them say they aren’t learning a damn thing. Morning Joe, Up, Now, Martin Bashir, Dylan Ratigan, Hardball, Politics Now, The Ed Show, Rachel Maddow, The Last Word, the soon to launch Melissa Harris-Perry…these all fall under the category of talk shows and most of them have been dealing with Campaign 2012 a long long time. And yet 49% of respondents say they aren’t being served with anything learnable regarding the campaigns and campaign news. Huh?
This is a disconnect of Grand Canyon like proportions. Something doesn’t add up here. Either the survey is flawed, the differentiation between question C and question K.F1 was too confusing for respondents, or respondents are lying through their teeth out of embarrassment.
There is no way in hell that more people say they learn nothing from cable news talk shows, which have the biggest audiences, than do from straight news, which have much smaller, more fickle to tune in and out audiences. Or, to put it another way, this survey doesn’t account for such a discrepancy. The numbers don’t make any sense, especially for a network like MSNBC which only has three hours of actual live news (Jansing & Co., Thomas Roberts, NewsNation) per day. It makes a bit more sense on FNC which has more live news per day and significantly higher live news numbers (though not a ton more sense). It makes the most sense for CNN which doggedly still clings to that slogan “news is our brand”.
But even taking CNN as an example we get further mired down into the question of what’s meant by “cable news talk shows” and what’s meant by “cable news networks” as far as this study is concerned. Because Pew lumps both categories into the same question, even though one appears to be a subset of the other, it adds a whole bunch of confusion to a subject that’s screaming for more clarity.
Pew seems to make a carve out for “cable news talk shows” but doesn’t do a very good job of defining what a cable news talk show is. Would CNN’s Starting Point qualify? How about AC 360? The Situation Room? Piers Morgan Tonight? What about MSNBC’s “Daily Rundown” and “Mitchell Reports”, both of which are long on talk but not so long on news. The Pew Survey cited Hardball as an example so I see no reason why you shouldn’t include Daily Rundown and Mitchell Reports which are basically the same thing; someone hurling question at people for an hour.
Pew then muddies the issue further with the umbrella term “cable news networks” category, which ostensibly includes “cable news talk shows”. See the problem? Pew doesn’t apparently. The problem is Pew, if it’s going to differentiate types of shows on cable news, can’t just differentiate one and then have a general category for all of cable news. And it can’t lump all three networks in together because they all operate differently and cater to different audiences.
No, it’s got to break out cable news network newscasts and cable news talk shows. And it needs to break them out for each network individually. Then we might finally start getting somewhere in understanding what the numbers signify.
All we know is that 49% of respondents report that they learn nothing from cable news talk shows whereas only 17% of respondents report that they learn nothing from cable news networks. What we don’t know is how these two sets of numbers reconcile given that one is dependent on the other and all three networks are different. That’s a step Pew has yet to take (and needs to take) for these results to have real meaning.
And then there’s this little tidbit in the Pew report which hasn’t gotten a lot of attention but certainly should.
News Sources and Political Knowledge
The general public’s knowledge about some of the fundamentals of the major candidates’ resumes, positions and the campaign process is rather limited. The survey, conducted Jan. 4-8 after the Iowa caucuses and before the New Hampshire primary, found 58% were able to identify Newt Gingrich as the candidate who had been speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. Fewer than half (46%) knew that Mitt Romney was governor of Massachusetts, and just 37% could identify Ron Paul as the Republican candidate opposed to U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan. About as many (39%) knew that the next primary after New Hampshire would be held in South Carolina. (For more about voters’ knowledge about the candidates and campaign, see “Many Voters Unaware of Basic Facts about GOP Candidates.”)
About a third of the Americans (35%) answered three or four of the questions correctly. This is somewhat higher among those who cite MSNBC (49%) or the Fox News Channel (48%) as their main television source for campaign news, as well as among those who get most of their news on the radio (48%).
Overall, people who cite the internet as their main source of campaign news do slightly better than average in terms of campaign knowledge; 42% answered at least three questions correctly. But there is a huge difference among internet users based on where they get campaign news.
Those who cite national newspapers as one of their online campaign news sources do well on the knowledge quiz: 73% answered at least three questions correctly.
That’s right. Cable news may be where the action is but the national newspapers still kick their asses and produce the most knowledgeable followers. Cable news may get the eyeballs but they aren’t as bright on the subject of campaigns. We can read that one of two ways. Either the smart people aren’t going to cable news to get their campaign news…or…cable news isn’t doing a good enough job informing its viewers of campaign news.
Cable news may be “driving the national political conversation” as Stelter puts it, but it’s doing so with viewers who aren’t as knowledgable as their national newspaper counterparts and is catering to a format where 49% of respondents say they never learn anything about Campaign 2012 or the candidates. In the future maybe Griffin and Whitaker should think twice before crowing too loudly regarding this subject.
Correction: I conflated Mark Whitaker and Mark Hoffman. I regret the error. Boy do I regret the error.