Commentary: Fragmented viewership for television news

While print sources have suffered readership losses in recent years, the Pew Research Center’s News Consumption Survey (2018) says about half of Americans watched a TV news show the day before, little changed from recent years. However, only a third of those younger than 30 watched TV news yesterday.

But what are they watching? Recent trends show a fragmented news audience with right-wingers preferring Fox News, moderates and lefties MSNBC. What happened to the good old days of CBS, NBC, ABC, where the evening news united us all, across the aisle? It was just a matter of which brand and the lively debates occurred in our living rooms and in the marketplace.

Myna German Schleifer

Today, viewers use TV news — if at all — to confirm the biases they already bring to the table. They select commentators that reinforce the political views that they already have rather than expose themselves to some new thinking and challenge closely held beliefs. The fragmentation of “niche” TV news has hurt the democratic debate as we have all become partisans and seekers of that familiar stroking, where our anchors tell us that what we think is right.

In the news business when I was just out of school and at CBS, we were told we had to be nonpartisan. We couldn’t work for a political party and we couldn’t show our personal preferences in the newsroom. When Ronald Reagan was elected, many CBS Network personnel had their doubts about him, but I was surprised no one said a word about the Democratic-GOP shift and a more conservative tide, although I knew many of their personal beliefs were different.

It was a badge of honor not to show partiality and ideology but report the news factually and without any show of emotion or personal bias. Even in the newsroom, we did not show this bias to one another as professionals. Now, TV news has lost half its audience to the Internet. The other half is fragmented along ideological lines in a way that seriously endangers the democratic conversation.

In our personal and professional lives, we cluster with people who reinforce what we already believe. However, our anchors at the networks exposed us to the same conversation pieces. Now cable anchors have a base the way our political parties have a base and pander to that base. This can’t be good for national unity or even conversation-starters at a party because everyone watches something different — if they watch at all.

If you are under 30 and not addicted to Internet news, you are a rarity for Generation Millennial or Generation Z. Your favorite TV anchors are probably not a conversation-starter anyway as you focus on your phone or pocket device. I won’t dare say what happened to our loyalty to Dan Rather or Walter Cronkite because that typecasts me as a Luddite.

But should I really talk about Sean Hannity (Fox) or Chris Matthews (MSNBC) with young people? They may not know who they are in the age of Instagram.

What are their media habits? Try WhatsApp or Facebook. The Big 3? That might as well be a football conference.

Dr. Myna German Schleifer is a Mass Communications professor at Delaware State University.

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