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date: 03 April 2020

Audience Fragmentation and Journalism in the U.S. Context

Summary and Keywords

The association between audience fragmentation and journalism is an intricate one. On the one hand, the word “audience” refers to an assembly of a group of consumers, such as book or magazine readers, moviegoers, radio or podcast listeners, television viewers, and website visitors, and they are primarily distinguished by the particular media product, genre, or outlet that they choose to consume. Webster stated in 2016 that oftentimes the purpose and consequence of audience research are financial—i.e., book publishers tend to break down their market by readers of different genres, which allows them to better tailor their content and promotions to relevant audiences in order to maximize book sales—and thus the goal of audience research in such contexts lies in finding the balance between capturing the largest number of media users who share similar consumption patterns and the narrowest content clusters—i.e., those separated by topic or genres.

On the other hand, whereas the purpose of audience conceptualization fundamentally revolves around fragmentation, the motivation for journalism in democratic societies is arguably the opposite. That is, if one were to believe, as Kovach and Rosenstiel posited in 2007, that the purpose of journalism is to inform and educate the people so they can self-govern and make better civil decisions in democratic societies, then it follows that the primary objective of journalism lies in serving as many citizens with the same information as possible. In short, the purpose of audience fragmentation and journalism is—in many ways—ontologically contradictory, with the former being more pluralistic in nature.

The topic of audience fragmentation is approached primarily from a commercial perspective, and in the context of the US market. It should be acknowledged, however, that this topic can and has been approached differently, via critical studies and across other markets. The end of this article offers a cursory comparative analysis between the USA and other Western countries to help contextualize findings from the USA in a global context. For those with deeper interest in such other inquiries, the recommended readings provided at the end of this article may offer a good starting point.

It should be noted that one of the biggest obstacles in the study of audience fragmentation, at least in the USA, lies in the fact that large-scale media reports of such data (e.g., those published by the Pew Research Center) often compare apples and oranges (e.g., either using survey questions with different operationalizations as the basis for comparison or reporting on different facets of audience fragmentation in its longitudinal studies, as this article will explain). To this end, this article is a first step in offering a baseline cross-sectional overview of how American audiences are consuming the news in 2018 via analysis of select Pew data files with comparable sampling method and survey instruments.

Keywords: audience fragmentation, journalism studies, audience, selective exposure, online journalism

The Purpose of Journalism: In the US Context

Granted, the nature and definition of journalism have changed over time, and there are even different roles and expectations of journalism in different parts of the world and under different political systems (Hallin & Giles, 2005). In the words of Michael Schudson and Susan E. Tifft (2005), “almost all questions about the news media concern differences among competing styles and principles of journalism, alternative institutional structures of news organizations, or different systems of political control of news” (p. 17). However, even as the production, distribution, and consumption of news have evolved with the advent of new technology and emerging media, the purpose of journalism—at least in the United States—has always been the same: to educate the people so that they may self-govern and make the best decision they can in the voting booth (Kovach & Rosenstiel, 2007). In short, the goal of journalism is to facilitate healthy functioning of a democratic government by giving its people truthful, balanced, and verified information, which by definition expects that the public be exposed to diverse perspectives on important issues facing the entire nation—not just issues belonging to a particular community or demographic. In this regard, audience fragmentation—be it for motivational, cognitive, or attitudinal reasons—is an impediment to the ideal purpose of journalism because it implies that different people are turning to different outlets that may not only focus on entirely different issues (e.g., some outlets may focus more on education whereas others more on national defense), but also present the same issues very differently to different audiences (e.g., conservative and liberal outlets tend to present and interpret the world very differently).

If more people were more likely to consume niche or no news in a high-choice media environment (Prior, 2007; Stroud, 2011), and if congenial selective exposure exacerbates political polarization (e.g., citizens on opposite sides of the political spectrum become more extreme in their viewpoint because most of the congenial news information they consume tends to affirm their existing beliefs and ostracize those with opposing viewpoints), then the future of a democratic society is likely jeopardized by the formation of various niche groups where people largely consume content within their own filter bubbles and may not care about or be knowledgeable regarding important issues facing the nation at large (e.g., Damanhouri, 2016).

Is selective exposure to congenial news content good or bad for democracy? On the one hand, some argue that the rise of congenial selective exposure may be bad for democracy because it discourages discussion and deliberation across the political aisles (e.g., Sunstein, 2002). On the other hand, others have argued that it may energize the public because it lets people focus on the issues that matter most to them and allows them to meet other like-minded individuals in the community (e.g., Schudson, 1998). Research is inconclusive on whether congenial selective exposure is good or bad for democracy, but one thing is certain—it fundamentally challenges the purpose of journalism in the USA because it minimizes the chance that the public will consume balanced news information with an open mind.


This article explores (a) the nature of journalism in conjunction with audience fragmentation in the US context, (b) the historical evolution of audience fragmentation in the USA both online and offline, (c) the theoretical evolution of the uses and gratifications paradigm and selective exposure theories, two major scholarly bodies of work that attempt to understand the antecedents and consequences of audience fragmentation, (d) the ways in which contemporary audiences fragment by news platform and topics—answering the question, “who is consuming what kind of news and why?,” and (e) how such fragmentation influences the economics of the American news industry, one of the largest commercial journalism institutions in the world. Additionally, this article will (f) offer an exploratory comparative analysis of audience fragmentation between the USA and other countries, and, finally, (g) discuss the strengths and weaknesses of research on audience fragmentation and journalism to date.

Evolution of Offline and Online Audience Fragmentation: In the US Context

A similar contradiction exists between journalism and the institution of commercial journalism—the former representing the practices designed to ensure quality news content to inform and educate the people (e.g., content that is fact checked, accurate, and fair), as aforementioned, and the latter professional organizations and normalized routines in which commercial journalism is practiced (Picard, 2017).

We reached the pinnacle of modern journalism as we know it with the popularization of the penny press in the 19th century (Schudson, 1981). With the rise of the middle class on the East Coast, penny press newspapers emerged as a way for news organizations to reach the largest audience possible. Whereas newspapers before this time primarily catered to the elites, the penny press newspapers were inexpensively produced in mass quantity and targeted the middle class as a whole. Rather than relying on the subscription model, penny press publications relied on advertising as the main source of revenue. Because the goal of such publications is to appeal to as many people in the public as possible, the rise of the penny press coincided with the news industry’s push for objectivity—one rationale being that an “objective” newspaper may appeal to both sides of the political spectrum in a bipartisan nation (Glasser, 1984; Schudson, 2001). During this time, the nature of journalism and the goal of commercial journalism were more in alignment—a majority of the public read from the same mainstream publications every day, with shared media agendas propelled by penny press newspapers. The rise of cable television around the 1950s, however, ushered in a growing number of niche news organizations that prioritized catering to a subset of audiences on one side of the political spectrum rather than the public as a whole, which increased the number of value-laden news choices that average news consumers had (e.g., it became possible for audiences to choose a news outlet that shared the same political orientation), prompting new political ways in which news audiences were fragmented (Stroud, 2011).

The evolution of online journalism went through a similar path. In the early 1990s, for commercial reasons, most mainstream news outlets distributed their online counterparts for free in the hope of attracting as many eyeballs as possible. During this time, online news consumers had free access to a variety of mainstream news outlets with similar media agendas and journalistic values (e.g., the prioritization of veracity, accuracy, and objectivity). However, with low barriers to entry (e.g., it does not cost nearly as much to start a new online news website than a physical news organization), the rise of the World Wide Web also enabled an exponential growth of niche news outlets online. With so many destinations to choose from online—which goes beyond news to include entertainment of all kinds—online news audiences once again began to fragment by personal interests and preferences (Prior, 2007).

In a nutshell, while the purpose of journalism remains that of educating and informing the public, the institutionalization of journalism both offline and online went through the same evolution where audience fragmentation became an eventual inevitability. Naturally, with significantly more news supply than there is audience demand for the news, it becomes increasingly important for journalism professionals and scholars to understand why and how news audiences fragment. To elaborate on such academic endeavors, I now turn to a brief discussion of the essence, impacts, strengthens, and weaknesses of the uses and gratifications paradigm and selective exposure theories.

Uses and Gratifications

In academic research on understanding and differentiating news audiences, uses and gratifications from the field of communication is one of the most well-known theoretical paradigms. Whereas a lot of communication research centers on the effects of mass media, uses and gratifications focuses on why and how different people consume mediated content. Specifically, uses and gratifications research tends to group media users based on motivations or gratifications.

Fundamental to uses and gratifications are the following assumptions (Emenyeonu, 1995; Lee, 2013; Ruggiero, 2000): (a) media users actively and purposefully consume different mediated content to satisfy different needs or reach different goals; (b) media use is often situational—in addition to individual factors such as motivations and personal preferences, people also tend to choose different content depending on social factors (e.g., what their friends and family suggest), as well as structural determinants (e.g., program scheduling on the side of content providers); (c) despite situational differences, motivational reasons for media use are a relatively stable predictor of different consumption patterns. For example, those who wish to be informed tend to seek out outlets drastically different from those who wish to be entertained, such as hard news versus comedy.

In understanding audience fragmentation, research suggests the need to be sensitive to subtle difference in media content. For example, rather than examining the news versus entertainment, or hard news versus soft news, it has been recommended that future research should examine news content by genre (e.g., Cable Sunday talk shoes or political blogs) or even program (e.g., opinion television programs such as The O’Reilly Factor or The Rachel Maddow Show in the USA) (Swanson, 1979). In addressing this issue, more uses and gratifications research in the past decade has examined difference by different news programs, websites, and smartphone apps than before (e.g., Gan & Li, 2018; Lee, 2013; Phua, Jin, & Kim, 2017).

To study why and how people use different media or consume different content, uses and gratifications researchers have used a number of research methods, such as diary, ethnography, experiments, and surveys (e.g., self-reports) (McLeod & Becker, 1974; Rubin, 2002, 2009). In the past, uses and gratifications has been criticized for being more descriptive—rather than predictive—in nature in that different studies have identified various motivational typologies in their attempt to fragment audiences (Bracken & Lombard, 2001; McDonald, 1990; McQuail, 1994). Nonetheless, given the exponential growth of media channels today, the abundance of motivational typologies may offer ample opportunity for scholars to further examine nuanced ways in which audiences consume content and are fragmented. Moreover, many studies have yielded similar findings across different media. For example, some studies have either identified similar typologies for print and online newspapers, as well as television news, or attempted to condense motivational typologies in news consumption across media (e.g., Diddi & LaRose, 2006; Garrett, 2009; Iyengar & Hahn, 2009; Lee, 2013; Rubin, 1984). Together, such findings are suggestive of the convergent validity of the rich findings in the uses and gratifications literature in contributing to our understanding of why and what people use.

Still, more research—particularly meta-analysis—is needed to help advance the uses and gratifications paradigm in the 21st century to help us better identify patterns in how media users converge and diverge across outlets and media. More important, future research should explore ways in which to promote a more balanced media diet through our understanding of why and how different people choose different media for consumption. In other words, it may be time that the field moves uses and gratifications research in the direction of intervention design (e.g., Lee & Chyi, 2014a) so that we can use our understanding of news audience fragmentation to cultivate a more informed citizenry. Moreover, as the uses and gratifications paradigm also argues, emerging technological, social, and cultural forces also complicate the interrelationship between the growth in media offerings and audience fragmentation (Katz, 1996; Perse & Dunn, 1998; Rubin, 2009; Yuan, 2011). Future studies are encouraged to examine the mediating or moderating influence of such forces on why and how people choose different media to satisfy their needs and gratifications.

Selective Exposure Theories

Both uses and gratifications and selective exposure theories became active in journalism and communication research around the time of World War II (e.g., in the 1940s), when more researchers questioned—under the limited-effects paradigm of media effects research—the extent to which media users’ motivated selection of media content moderates and/or mediates the effect of mass media on the public. Despite the shared goal to better understand the antecedents and consequences of selective media exposure, the two theoretical perspectives approach the issues differently. Specifically, while the uses and gratifications paradigm focuses primarily on motivational predictors of media consumption, a number of selective exposure theories examine other factors, such as cognitive and attitudinal determinants, that contribute to what and why people use.

A bulk of selective exposure research centers on why people tend to choose congenial information—that is, messages that are consistent with one’s political beliefs—over uncongenial information, which refers to messages that challenge one’s political viewpoints (for an overview, see Stroud, 2017). For example, in their seminal study on news use during the 1940 presidential campaign, Lazrsfeld, Berelson, and Gaudet (1948) found that partisan voters preferred news about their party’s candidate rather than information on both candidates. In addition to selective exposure, Klapper (1960) proposed selective perception and selective retention—people’s tendency to pay attention to and remember things that align with their beliefs or make them feel better about themselves.

One of the most well-known theories that attempts to explain selective exposure is the cognitive dissonance theory (Festinger, 1962), which states that people tend to consume content that they agree with because it minimizes the discomfort they may feel when encountering messages that they do not agree with. Additionally, people may choose congenial information because it requires less cognitive effort on their part.

Other than the aforementioned cognitive factors, research on selective exposure also identified that people tend to choose congenial content when they perceive the information to be of high quality and when they desire to be accurate or have directional goals, as well as when they are in a bad mood (Hart et al., 2009; Knobloch-Westerwick & Meng, 2009; Stroud, 2008). Nonetheless, more research is needed to examine whether perceived information quality is a predictor of congenial selective exposure or a mediator between congenial information and selective exposure.

Beyond congenial selective exposure, other research has also identified that people tend to consume more content on topics that are noteworthy to them, as well as to use media that better meet their needs (Lee & Chyi, 2014b). Moreover, particularly in today’s high-choice media environment where content supply significantly outweighs that of demand, research finds that most people tend to prefer entertainment over news (Prior, 2007). The latter point is of particular concern in journalism, particularly since study after study has documented the public’s lackluster interest in the news both over time and generationally. The next section presents an overview of what different Americans news audiences consume both offline and online.

Selective exposure theories have identified many ways in which selective exposure is heightened, yet—similar to the problems facing uses and gratifications research—we still do not know enough about how to systematically promote a more balanced news diet to cultivate better informed citizens. To illustrate, the next section outlines how US news audiences fragment across news platforms and topics.

Baseline State of News Audience Fragmentation: In the US Context

Since 2004, the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan think tank in the USA, has published an annual report on how news audiences fragment within the US news media industry, and is one of the main sources on news audience fragmentation in the USA that is not behind the paywall (cf. Nielsen and comScore). Despite the abundance of information on US news media performance and audience fragmentation that the Pew Research Center offers year after year, one of the primary challenges for research on news audience fragmentation in the USA is that Pew’s annual reports do not always track or report on the same data over time to allow for longitudinal analysis. For example, whereas earlier annual reports sometimes included data on audience fragmentation (e.g., the 2012 annual report’s analysis of percentage of the public accessing the news via mobile versus other platforms), later annual reports shifted away from average news consumers’ media use and placed more emphasis on industry data analysis (e.g., the 2018 annual report’s analysis of US daily newspapers’ estimated circulation and number of unique visitors).

While such diversity in research methodology certainly offers a richer understanding of the US news industry (Pew Research Center, 2018), it does American audience fragmentation research a disservice due to a lack of data consistency over time. Moreover, sometimes Pew reports contradictory information in its annual reports without clarification (e.g., its 2015 annual report claims, on the front page, that “mobile is the future of news” due to growing traffic yet states, in the “digital news audience” section of the same annual report, that “time spent on mobile is shorter than that of desktop computers”). Pew Research Center’s contribution to the field’s understanding of the US news industry should be recognized, although the aforementioned problems may complicate audience fragmentation research and contribute to public misinformation should journalists and media researchers fail to account for such complexities.

To address this impediment, the following section attempts to offer a clear and consistent overview of how news audiences in the USA fragment in today’s media landscape, after combing through Pew Research Center’s rich data archive and analyzing only comparable data files (e.g., those that used comparable sampling methods and consistent survey instruments). Specifically, for data transparency, it should be noted that the overview is based on Pew Research Center’s 2017 American Trends Panel Wave 25 March (N = 4151) and Wave 28 August (N = 4971), and its 2016 American Trends Panel Wave 14 January (N = 4654). Future studies are encouraged to adopt similar methodological transparency in subsequent analysis of the state of audience fragmentation in the USA and abroad.

Digital News Fragmentation

According to Wave 25, which was conducted in March 2017, 65% of the respondents reported having accessed the news sometimes or often on a desktop or laptop, whereas 74% of the respondents reported the same for mobile access (e.g., smartphone or tablet). In terms of digital native news publishers, which Pew defined as those that do not have an offline counterpart and have on average at least 10 million unique visitors during analysis, the report found that most people spend, on average, 2.4 minutes per visit. Among the most popular digital native news outlets that have at least one mobile app (61%), 42% have both iOS and Android apps. Among those that only specialize in one operating system, 17% have only an iOS app, whereas 3% have only an Android app.

In terms of those who have ever gotten news on a mobile device, Americans 65 or older constitute the group that had the biggest increase between 2016 and 2017 (from 43% to 67%). In terms of penetration, those between ages 18 and 49 remain the largest group (94%) that has ever gotten news on a mobile device. When it comes to preference for news on a mobile or a computer among those who get news on both, a majority of those between 18 and 29, 30 and 49, and 50 and 64 indicated a preference for mobile consumption (77%, 72%, and 54%, respectively). Among those who are 65 or older, more than half (51%) preferred desktop/laptop consumption to mobile consumption (Lu, 2017).

According to Wave 14 (January 2017), more people come across news online (e.g., on a computer or a mobile device) incidentally (55%) rather than purposefully (44%). Significantly, more people (72%) said that online news consumption exposes them to a wider range of news stories than they would get otherwise, whereas only one-quarter of the respondents asserted that online news sites do not do so.

Using Pew’s measurement of whether the respondents had come across different news topics online “in the past two hours” from Wave 14, which is one of the latest large-scale surveys from a reputable nonpartisan organization on online news consumption, I found that some demographic variables are better predictors of different types of online news consumption than others. Specifically:

  1. 1. For government and political news, the audiences do not differ by race and ethnicity, political party, or age, though they differ by gender (men = 61.3%, women = 44.6%; χ‎2 (1, N = 2176) = 62.26, p < .01).

  2. 2. For local news, the audiences do not differ by race and ethnicity, age, or political party, though they differ by gender (men = 19.6%, women = 25.5%; χ‎2 (1, N = 2176) = 10.50, p < .01).

  3. 3. For sports news, the audiences do not differ by political party, though they differ by race and ethnicity (white = 18.1%, black = 28.4%, Hispanic = 23.3%, and other = 21.8%; χ‎2 (3, N = 2159) = 11.24, p < .05), gender (men = 28.6%, women = 10.2%; χ‎2 (1, N = 2176) = 118.45, p < .01), and age (ages 18–29 = 24.1%, ages 30–49 = 21.1%, ages 50–64 = 18.3%, and ages 65+ = 14.3%; χ‎2 (3, N = 2174) = 14.65, p < .01).

  4. 4. For business and finance news, the news audiences do not differ by race, age, or political party, though they differ by gender (men = 34.2%, women = 11.5%; χ‎2 (1, N = 2176) = 158.87, p < .01).

  5. 5. For science and technology news, the news audiences do not differ by race and ethnicity, though they differ by gender (men = 27.3%, women = 11.4%; χ‎2 (1, N = 2176) = 88.86, p < .01), age (ages 18–29 = 27%, ages 30–49 = 19.3%, ages 50–64 = 17.8%, and ages 65+ = 15.1%; χ‎2 (3, N = 2174) = 20.14, p < .01), and political party (Republican = 14.1%, Democrat = 21%, Independent = 21.1%, and other = 24.1%; χ‎2 (3, N = 2165) = 16.11, p < .01).

  6. 6. For entertainment news, the audiences do not differ by gender, though they do differ by race and ethnicity (white = 22.4%, black = 44%, Hispanic = 38.7%, and other = 25%; χ‎2 (3, N = 2159) = 49.13, p < .01), age (ages 18–29 = 37.4%, ages 30–49 = 29.6%, ages 50–64 = 20.9%, and ages 65+ = 14.5%; χ‎2 (3, N = 2174) = 70.37, p < .01), and political party (Republican = 17.7%, Democrat = 28.5%, Independent = 28.7%, and other = 26.7%; χ‎2 (3, N = 2165) = 26.76, p < .01).

  7. 7. For crime news, the audiences do not differ by gender, age, or political party, though they differ by race and ethnicity (white = 19.1%, black =34%, Hispanic = 30.7%, and other = 21.8%; χ‎2 (3, N = 2159) = 27.25, p < .01).

  8. 8. For health news, the audiences do not differ by gender, age, or political party, though they do differ by race and ethnicity (white = 15.2%, black = 25.5%, Hispanic = 20.2%, and other = 17.7%; χ‎2 (3, N = 2159) = 12.34, p < .01).

Social Media News Fragmentation

In terms of exposure to the news or news headlines online on social media, topline questionnaire of Wave 28 (data August 7–21, 2017) found that most Twitter users have seen news or news headlines on Twitter (74%), followed by Reddit users on Reddit (68%) and Facebook users on Facebook (68%). The extent to which other social media users come across news or news headlines is significantly less. For example, only 39% of Tumblr users noted that they were exposed to either the news or news headlines on Tumblr, 32% YouTube users on YouTube, 29% Snapchat users on Snapchat, 27% Instagram users on Instagram, and 23% WhatsApp users on WhatsApp (Pew Research Center, 2017). Nonetheless, in terms of purposeful versus accidental news exposure, which refers to whether the users mostly got news on each site because they were looking for it versus because they happened to be doing other things online, Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube users are more likely to have come across news due to purposeful exposure (63%, 62%, and 58%, respective), whereas Reddit, Twitter, and LinkedIn users are more likely to have come across news while doing other things (42%, 45%, and 48%, respectively) (Pew Research Center, 2016).

As expected, different people gravitate toward different social networking sites for news. Below is the demographic profile of such differences (Gottfried & Shearer, 2016, p. 14): Overall, 52% of US adults are female, a little over half (56%) are between ages 18 and 49, 28% have a college degree, 65% are white, and most are Independent (31%), followed by Democrats (30%) and Republicans (25%). In terms of gender, Instagram has the most female news users (65%), followed by Facebook (57%), Twitter (53%), LinkedIn (44%), and YouTube (43%). In terms of age, Reddit has most news users between ages 18 and 49 (92%), followed by Instagram (86%), Twitter (77%), Facebook (69%), YouTube (68%), LinkedIn (66%), and Reddit (29%). When it comes to education level, LinkedIn has the most news users with a college degree (65%), followed by Reddit (48%), Twitter (45%), Facebook (33%), Instagram (31%), and YouTube (25%). Among the six social media outlets sampled, Reddit has the most white, non-Hispanic news users (74%), followed by LinkedIn and Facebook (both 65%), Twitter (61%), YouTube (55%), and Instagram (40%). In terms of political affiliation, Reddit has the most Independent news users compared to Democrat and Republican users (44%, 29%, and 5%, respectively), followed by LinkedIn (Independent 34%, Democrat 29%, and Republican 23%), Facebook (Independent 32%, Democrats 31%, and Republican 22%), Twitter (Independent 31%, Democrat 31%, and Republican 19%), YouTube (Independent 31%, Democrat 29%, Republican 21%), and Instagram (Independent 27%, Democrat 40%, and Republican 14%).

It should be noted that a significant number of social media users still often get news from traditional news platforms as well. Specifically, whereas 37% of US adults often get news from local television, 33% of Facebook news users often get news from local television, followed by 30% Instagram news users, 30% LinkedIn news users, 25% YouTube users, 22% Snapchat users, and 21% Twitter users. Whereas 28% of all US adults often get news from cable television, 29% of LinkedIn news users often get news on cable television, followed by 28% Twitter news users, 27% Instagram news users, 24% Facebook and YouTube news users, and 20% Snapchat news users. Whereas 26% of US adults often get news from network nightly television, 22% of LinkedIn news users often get news on network nightly television, the same is true for Instagram news users (22%), followed by 20% Facebook news users, 18% YouTube news users, 15% Twitter news users, and 12% Snapchat news users. Whereas 33% of US adults often get news on news websites/apps, 58% of LinkedIn news users often get news on news websites/apps, followed by 55% Twitter users, 49% Snapchat users, 48% Instagram users, 44% YouTube users, and 33% Facebook users. Whereas 25% of US adults often get news on radio, 34% of LinkedIn news users often get news on radio, followed by 29% Twitter news users, 26% Instagram and YouTube news users, 24% Facebook news users, and 15% Snapchat news users. Finally, whereas 18% of US adults often get news in print newspapers, 16% of LinkedIn news users also often get news from print newspapers, followed by 11% Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram news users, 9% YouTube news users, and 5% Snapchat news users (Shearer & Gottfried, 2017).

With regard to how social media news users interact with news, combining the “often” and “sometimes” measures, most people have clicked on a news link at least sometimes (80%) in 2016, noticeably fewer people have liked (58%), shared (49%) news articles, or commented on news articles (37%), and still fewer people have posted links to news stories themselves (36%), discussed issues in the news on social media (31%), or posted their own photos or videos of a news event (19%) (Mitchell, Gottfried, Barthel, & Shearer, 2016). Such differences suggest not only that the aforementioned audience behaviors are distinct, but also that different audiences may behave differently. Nonetheless, to the best of my knowledge, Pew only released the dataset that combined measures of “posted, shared, or commented.” Future studies are encouraged to separate these social behaviors in data analysis, as they clearly capture different facets of social engagement.

Cross-Platform News Consumption Comparison

According to Wave 28, which was conducted August 2017, its topline questionnaire offers the following overview of the percentage of the respondents who have used the following platform “sometimes” and “often,” respectively: print newspapers (25% and 18%), radio news (31% and 25%), local television news, (27% and 37%), national evening network television news (e.g., ABC World News, CBS Evening News, or NBC Nightly News) (25% and 26%), cable television news (e.g., CNN, FOX, or MSNBC) (27% and 28%), social media sites (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, or Snapchat) (27% and 20%), and a news website or app (31% and 33%). If we were to combine the “sometimes” and “often” measures, online news sites and apps is the leading platform (65%), followed by local television news (64%) and radio (56%). On the other hand, print newspaper (43%) and social media sites (47%) are the least frequented platforms for news. Comparing the same data from 2017 to that of 2016, combining “sometimes” and “often,” local news has gained the most audience (+9%), whereas news sites and apps experienced the greatest loss (-9%), though more data points are needed before more conclusive remarks on over time shift in news platform use can be made (Pew Research Center, 2017).

Audience Fragmentation in the USA Versus Other Western Countries

Thus far, most of this article has focused on examining the nature and impact of audience fragmentation in the USA. The following section offers an introductory global comparative analysis of news consumption and audience fragmentation. The main question that such comparison seeks to address is: Is news audience fragmentation in the USA, as examined in previous sections, typical or atypical in the global context?

In considering global comparative analysis, a number of large-scale international comparative studies on news audience fragmentation offer a good starting point for consideration (e.g., Becker & Shoenbach, 1989; Blekesaune, Elvestad, & Aalberg, 2012; Papathanassopoulos et al., 2013; Schulz, 2018). In their edited volume that examines how audiences from 11 Western countries fragment as a response to media diversification, Shoenbach and Becker (1989) uncovered four striking consistencies among all the countries examined:

  1. 1. In all Western countries where media content has been relatively “free” (e.g., without severe governmental restrictions), there is little evidence of time displacement where people’s time spent doing nonmedia behaviors dwindled as the result of new media.

  2. 2. There is little evidence that Western audience members are radically reducing time spent on or subscription to auditory and print media (emphasis in original).

  3. 3. Both old and new media are increasingly specialized, with the goal of appealing to narrower, more specific markets.

  4. 4. There is little evidence that the rise of new media has created new audience interests. Instead, most people have primarily used new media as another avenue to better satisfy their existing information or entertainment needs.

A more recent European comparative analysis also found that new media complement, rather than displace, traditional media (Blekesaune et al., 2012). In fact, there is evidence that traditional media—particularly television—remains the most popular news medium across the globe (Papathanassopoulos et al., 2013).

The fact that television remains the most popular news media across the globe is a potential cause for concern, as other international comparative studies found that use of commercial television news is strongly associated with selective exposure, polarization, and populist attitudes (Schulz, 2018). In other words, television is the most popular news medium across the globe, but it is also one (along with tabloid newspapers) that promotes populist ideology—a collective belief that the ruling class is out of touch with the people and that the media are “lying and working against the people” (Schulz, 2018, p. 1)—and audience fragmentation among citizens worldwide.

The persistent popularity of television news across the globe does not mean that more people are consuming more news content than before, however, as research has identified both in the USA and in Europe that with exponential growth of media choices today, more people are either choosing entertainment over the news or avoiding the news altogether (Becker & Shoenbach, 1989; Katz, 1996; Lindell & Hovden, 2018; Prior, 2007; Trilling & Schoenbach, 2013), or developing distinct media repertoires that reinforce the idea of audience segmentation (Yuan, 2011). In summarizing the fragmenting nature of television, Katz (1996) concludes,

Throughout the Western world, the newspaper was the first medium of national integration. It was followed by radio. When television came, it displaced the radio as the medium of national integration, and radio became the medium of segmentation. Now, following radio again, television has become a medium of segmentation, pushed by both technology and society. Unlike the moment when television assumed radio’s role as the medium of national integration, there is nothing in sight to replace television, not even media events or the Internet. (p. 33)


In sum, audience fragmentation has become an integral part of contemporary and emerging journalism across the globe, although country-specific differences remain (Fletcher & Nielsen, 2017). More journalism and communication research is needed to uncover more systematically effective ways to encourage a more balanced news diet among average news audiences as to nurture a more informed and engaged public in today’s high-choice environment that leads to inevitable fragmentation in the USA and across the world.

Further Reading

Elvestad, E., & Phillips, A. (2018). Misunderstanding news audiences: Seven myths of the social media era. New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

Fletcher, R., & Nielsen, R. K. (2017). Are news audiences increasingly fragmented? A cross-national comparative analysis of cross-platform news audience fragmentation and duplication. Journal of Communication, 67(4), 476–498.Find this resource:

Stroud, N. J. (2011). Niche news: The politics of news choice. New York: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

Webster, J. G. (2016). The marketplace of attention: How audiences take shape in a digital age. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Find this resource:


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Fletcher, R., & Nielsen, R. K. (2017). Are news audiences increasingly fragmented? A cross-national comparative analysis of cross-platform news audience fragmentation and duplication. Journal of Communication, 67(4), 476–498.Find this resource:

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