Liberals vs. Conservatives on the Web

A few weeks ago, Jon Stewart did a segment about the News of the World phone hacking scandal and how media companies owned by Rupert Murdoch (e.g. Fox News) downplayed the relevancy of the story.  This wasn’t the Daily Show’s first attempt at making news of the news industry (and probably not the last), but it got me thinking about the audience for Stewart’s show vs. the Fox audience.  More specifically, I wondered if Compete data, beyond the demographics of age, gender and income, could explain how two completely different versions of the world can exist at the same time.

I started by thinking that online news sites offer two important things: First they choose which topics to present and each topic’s relative importance.  Second they choose which facts within a story best represent the truth in the situation.  So, given access to any Compete data I need, I developed three personas of visitors to online news and tracked them across 4 news portals (two liberal and two conservative), with the goal of understanding how liberals and conservatives act on the web and the trust they have in the media they consume.

Visitor 1 – High Trust “I trust that my media outlet knows which stories are relevant and also gives the truth about those stories”.  This was measured by direct traffic to each of the sites, implying that a visitor goes there trusts the both content selection and accuracy.

Visitor 2 – Moderate Trust “I choose the stories that are important to me, but I trust this media company to tell me the truth about it”. This was measured by the percentage of traffic that comes from search engines like Google, where someone types in “Debt Ceiling” and navigates to the site that would “tell the truth” about this topic (note: search engine traffic includes searches for things like “NY Times” or “Fox News”, so the absolute numbers matter less than their relative sizes).

Visitor 3 – Low Trust “For a story I read, I need another/counter opinion to understand the truth”. This was measured by the number of navigations to another media site on the web (e.g. navigating from NYTimes.com to DrudgeReport.com shows the need for a counter opinion on the story)

Each of these visitors represents a different level of trust in the media, where the first trusts the website to find what is relevant and convey the story accurately.  The second visitor finds their own stories but trusts the website to tell the truth about that story and the third visitor shows the least amount of trust because they require another site to understand the whole point of view.

Gathering the Compete data described above for the four news sites, here’s what I found…

Analysis

For the most part, I want to keep my commentary to a minimum so that people commenting on this post can give their insights, but here are a few things that I found interesting.

1-      The direct traffic numbers show that conservative media attracts more “high trust” people who trust that site will find relevant stories and tell the truth (i.e. visitor 1 from above).

2-      Search engine referral numbers show that people who rely on themselves to figure out what’s important, but rely on the media to tell the truth (visitor 2) tend to be more liberal.

3-      When it comes to evaluating multiple viewpoints, conservative media visitors tend to rely on other conservative media to learn more about the topic (measured by referrals of FoxNews.com and DrudgeReport.com referring to each other vs. referring to HuffingtonPost.com and NYTimes.com), while liberal media consumers are more inclined to view conservative media.

This analysis is by no means exhaustive, so please include your analysis and ideas for improvement in the comments below.