Partiality and Polarisation of News

I am very happy to comment on the data emerging from the Reuters Institute Digital News Report. These data confirm, at least partially, what we wrote in Comparing Media Systems (Hallin and Mancini, 2004). In particular they confirm the accuracy of the definition of one of the models we outlined there, ‘the polarised pluralist model’, and its main constitutive elements.

But, first, let’s look at the data: in general, across all the countries the majority of respondents say they prefer news with ‘no particular point of view’. Such differences as there are between the countries are relatively minor, other than for the urban Brazilian respondents who appear to be outliers in this ranking. Indeed, their behaviour differs significantly from all the others: Brazilian consumers seem to be far less interested in getting detached news.

Consumer preferences around news by country

Q5c: Thinking about the different kinds of news available to you, do you prefer news that…

Base: All markets UK (n=2078) US (n=2028) Spain (n=979) Japan (n=978) Italy (n=965) Germany (n=1062) France (n=973) Denmark (n=1007) Urban Brazil (n=985)

% agree

In many respects the preference for more neutral news is obvious. Conventional wisdom favours neutral news and predicts that the ‘ideal’ news consumer will also prefer it: journalists are supposed to produce neutral and detached news and ‘the good citizen’ is supposed to seek it out. Even if this is indeed the dominant approach, the percentage of those who look for news ‘that share their point of view’ is remarkable. In total, in all countries where the survey has been conducted, 23% of the respondents stated a preference for ‘news that share their own point of view’, in face of 65.6% who look for neutral news and 11.2% who prefer news that ‘challenge their point of view’. Combining together the answers of those who prefer partisan news (confirming or challenging a pre-existing point of view), a total of 34.3% is reached.

Consumer preferences around news (all countries)

Impartial news Share your view Challenge your view Total partial news
65.6% 23% 11.2% 34.3%

Q5c. Thinking about the different kinds of news available to you, do you prefer news that …

Base: All markets (n=11004)

This is an important result that goes in the direction of the polarisation thesis that many scholars have already outlined. Markus Prior, in particular, has in several pieces linked the development of partisan media to the increasing polarisation of American political arena (Prior, 2007). This trend is in particular linked to the rise of commercialisation and more recently to the advent of the web that together have progressively encouraged the shift from the mass audience to a series of ‘niche audiences’: Jomini Stroud has discussed this transformation at length in her recent book (Jomini Stroud, 2011). Her point is very simple and confirms many earlier observations: because of the abundance and the increasing commercialisation that characterise the contemporary mass media system, the mass audience is replaced by ‘niche’ audiences.

Each media outlet addresses a specific segment of the population defined on the basis of different dimensions. Often these are ideological and political dimensions: liberal people look for liberal media, conservative people look for conservative media, etc. In this way existing opinions are just confirmed and reinforced as many people prefer to seek out familiar and recognisable ideas.

The internet seems to further strengthen the tendency towards segmentation of the public: amongst the enormous number of possible sources made available by the web, consumers are likely to tune in to sources that focus on their interests, that share their opinions, that address problems and issues they are already familiar with. In this regard Cass Sunstein has proposed the idea of the ‘Daily Me’: people are likely to look more and more for their own image in the news. Sunstein’s words are useful in pointing out this particular behaviour, mostly when it relates to news:

Perhaps you have no interest at all in ‘news’. Maybe you find ‘news’ impossibly boring. If so, you need not see it at all. Maybe you select programs and stories involving only music and weather. Or perhaps your interests are more specialized still, concentrating on opera, or Beethoven, or Bob Dylan, or modern dance, or some subset of one or more of the above (Maybe you like early Dylan and hate late Dylan). (Sunstein 2007, p. 2)

Media segmentation is mostly based on the attempt to give the consumer content and perspectives he is supposed to like and to agree with. The ‘Daily Me’ stresses this tendency of mass media consumers to look for their own image in what is offered by the increasing number of sources that are available today.

Polarisation may be the consequence of audience segmentation: the various ‘niches’ are reinforced in their pre-existing feelings and opinions. The distance between the different positions and attitudes that already exist within society is thereby increased. Rather than constructing a common sphere where different views can meet and negotiate their specific interests, new media for the most part, together with the more general impact of the very crowded mass media market driven by market logic, fosters the division of the large mass audience into smaller niche audiences, each of them mostly interested in the strengthening of its own identity. In the Reuters Institute survey, 23% of the respondents agree that they prefer to tune in to sources that share ‘their own point of view’. The fact that 11.2% of the respondents state that they choose to get connected with sources that ‘challenge their own point of view’ confirms the acknowledgement of the existence of ‘partial’ web sources and therefore the possibility of choosing among very clearly distinct sources.

But I was also reassured by other results from the Reuters Institute survey which tend to confirm the hypothesis that we stressed in Comparing Media Systems. The countries where the level of polarisation appears highest (people are more willing to tune in to sources that share their point of view) are those we labelled as ‘polarised – pluralist’: namely Spain, Italy, and France. In these Mediterranean countries there are more online respondents than in the other countries surveyed who state a clear preference for news sources that share their point of view. Actually the country with highest percentage of these consumers is ‘urban Brazil’, which many observers consider close to the ‘polarised – pluralist’ model, even if with some remarkable differences compared to the European version of this model (Albuquerque, 2012). Indeed, for this author, news media in Brazil, as in many other Latin American countries (Waisbord, 2000), present a high level of political parallelism and instrumentalisation, the state also plays an important role in affecting the media, professionalism in journalism is weak, deep cleavages of a historical, social, and economic nature divide the country, so that citizens are more inclined to refer to those sources of information that they perceive close to their ideas and opinions. Ideological and political polarisation seems to be a featuring characterisation of these countries even if, in South America, the influence of commercialisation may appear stronger than in Europe also because of the more direct and closer role played by the United States.

In these countries behaviour on the web seems perfectly consistent with widespread consumption attitudes where the affiliation to a particular point of view or political perspective takes precedence over membership of any wider non-partisan community. These countries present internal divisions of economic and cultural nature that also derive from historical habits and that are deeper and more rooted than elsewhere. These divisions produce consumption patterns that align partisan content with partisan consumers. Consumers are not particularly interested in listening to different and contrasting voices, rather they seem to be more inclined to separate themselves from alternative positions and perspectives. In the end this particular choice of consumption may widen the distance among different parts of the society, thereby reinforcing social and political polarisation.

Consumer preferences by age (all countries)

Q5c: Thinking about the different kinds of news available to you, do you prefer…

Base: All markets (n=11004)

The Reuters Institute Digital News Report offers another interesting perspective on the theme of polarisation: young consumers are more likely to seek out sources that ‘share their point of view’: with 28.7% of those who are between 25 and 35 years saying they prefer ‘sources that share their point of view’, compared to just 20% of those over 55. In part, this is unsurprising: young people are usually ‘more extreme’ in their behaviour, more inclined and willing to be part of a specific group than older ones. The web reinforces this tendency: Facebook puts together old and new friends and blogs are mostly addressed to those who already share some specific interests. Approaches to news consumption reflect the same tendencies.


  • A. de Albuquerque (2012) ‘On Models and Margins: Comparative Media Models Viewed from a Brazilian Perspective’, in D. Hallin and P. Mancini (eds), Comparing Media Systems Beyond the Western World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
  • D. Hallin and P. Mancini (2004) Comparing Media Systems: Three Model of Press and Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
  • N. Jomini Stroud (2011) Niche News: The Politics of News Choice (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press).
  • M. Prior (2007) Post-Broadcast Democracy (New York: Cambridge University Press).
  • C. Sunstein (2007) 2.0 (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press).
  • S. Waisbord (2000) ‘Media in South America: Between the Rock of the State and the Hard Place of the Market’, in J. Curran and M. J. Park (eds), De-westernizing Media Studies (London: Routledge).