From an August 17 article by John Diaz in the San Francisco Chronicle:
Let’s begin by dismissing some stereotypes and tenets of conventional wisdom about California voters. They do follow developments about state government and politics – not as much as they track the weather, the ultimate local story, but more than they follow news about sports or entertainment. They do want to become engaged in civic life. They do trust the professional journalists in mainstream media more than any other single source of information, far more than bloggers and their friends and family members.
Perhaps most heartening, and surprising, in this age of Fox News and MSNBC echo chambers: Most don’t merely seek out news that reinforces their own beliefs.
These were among the key findings of a fascinating new in-depth study of how California voters receive and process information about state government and politics. The survey of 3,500 Californians’ news and media habits was conducted by the respected polling firm Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz and Associates for the James Irvine Foundation as part of its California Democracy Program.
If two words could describe how Californians of varied demographic groups receive their news about public policy decisions, they would be “sophisticated” and “discriminating.”
In essence, they go to multiple sources for news, and they don’t necessarily accept what they receive from at any given stop. For example, 68 percent of the respondents cited “professional journalists working for mainstream media” as their most-used source for California government and politics – no other option exceeded single digits – yet only 46 percent of them counted it as their most trusted and reliable source of information.
As President Ronald Reagan famously put it, “Trust, but verify.”
This finding should be cause for contemplation from those in mainstream media – especially that 22-point gap between relying on and trusting us – but is also cause for relief for those of us who worried that voters were custom-tailoring their news menus to exclude points of view that dissented from their own.
Dan Schnur, veteran Republican strategist who now directs the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California, coined the phrase “iPodization of politics” to describe the phenomenon of Americans tuning into talk radio and cable TV shows that reinforce their own predispositions. As Schnur has duly noted, this trend has its healthy aspects in empowering people to go to the original points of information – speeches, position papers, voting records – without a media filter.
But it also comes with at a cost: People who rely on like-minded media can be shielded from facts that might change their perceptions, or could become prone to join the hosts’ hysteria in demonizing the opposition. A commitment to finding common ground is essential to making a democracy work – and is sorely missing in both a divided Washington and a Democratic-dominated Sacramento.
The survey suggests that most Californians are well aware of the perils of polarization. Just 1 in 5 voters seeks out news that reinforces his or her beliefs. The largest group, 44 percent, prefers sources of news that don’t have a particular point of view.
“That was very heartening,” said Amy Dominguez-Arms, director of the Irvine Foundation’s California Democracy Program.
Roger Salazar, a Democratic communications consultant who has worked in the state Capitol and the White House, said one of the striking findings was the extent to which voters had “become their own editors.” He noted that such practices – seeking out multiple sources of information, ever so skeptically – were especially evident among ethnic voters.
There is relatively little distinction in the use of mainstream media between ethnic and white voters, the study found. But 4 out of 5 ethnic voters said they get at least occasional news from ethnic media sources – though just 14 percent rely on it as a primary source of information about government and politics.
White voters are more likely (45 percent) to say their primary news source “covers issues that I care about” than African Americans (41 percent), Latinos (39 percent) or Asians (34 percent).
Also, not surprisingly, differences in perspective on news correlated with method of delivery. Online readers are more likely to be concerned about public education and climate change; print readers are more concerned about crime, gas prices and immigration. Online readers are more open to the notion of higher taxes and more government. They tend to be younger and more liberal.
These findings are likely to be scrutinized closely in the worlds of politics, academia and journalism. For our opinion pages, one very clear message is that many Californians want to engage in civic life, and they look to their news sources for guidance on how and when to do it for optimal effect.
It’s an important reminder of our role as promoter of public engagement and navigator of public policy, and one that will be reflected on our editorial pages.
A snapshot of California voters
Here are some of the findings of new statewide research for the James Irvine Foundation (irvine.org):
59% say they enjoy keeping up with the news “a lot”
57% say they are “very” or “extremely” interested in news about government or state politics
8% say they don’t keep up with the news
44% say they prefer news sources that don’t have a particular point of view
21% seek out news that reinforces their beliefs
61% say they have engaged in an activity in the past year that involves them in their community’s civic life
68% say that television, radio, newspaper or Internet news sources let them know how they can get involved
Whom do they trust most about state government and politics?
46% Professional journalists working for mainstream media
10% Citizen journalists or bloggers
10% Community groups or leaders
9% Friends and family
8% Professional journalists working for ethnic media