The Way People Follow The News Has Changed A Lot Since Watergate

Ariel Edwards-Levy
William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in the Ukraine, is seen testifying before the House Intelligence Committee on a television at California State University, Sacramento Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2019.  (Photo: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in the Ukraine, is seen testifying before the House Intelligence Committee on a television at California State University, Sacramento Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2019.  (Photo: ASSOCIATED PRESS)

When the Senate Watergate Committee televised its hearings on the Watergate scandal in 1973, 70% of Americans told Gallup they’d watched at least some of the proceedings live on television.

A HuffPost/YouGov poll conducted during the hearings into impeaching President Trump highlight how the national media environment has fractured in the decades since ― an additional hurdle for those hoping the testimony would dramatically shift public opinion. This and other recent surveys have found that support for impeachment, after rising earlier this fall, didn’t change much during the course of the hearings.

It’s not that the testimony didn’t attract widespread attention: 78% of the public said they’d followed news about the hearings to at least some extent. But only four in 10 say they’d watched even some parts of the actual hearings. Another 38% saw clips, highlights or news stories analyzing the proceedings, while 22% hadn’t heard anything at all.

“If Americans have devoured past live hearings in Washington, following each dramatic twist and turn, many seemed only to nibble and graze” on the Trump impeachment hearings, the AP’s Stephen Groves and Tamara Lush wrote as the hearings kicked off. “They scanned headlines on their phones, read social media posts or clicked on snippets of video pushed out online…. The fractured and filtered way the country consumed the testimony — and all news — may have consequences.”

In 1973, Americans could watch the Watergate hearings in full on PBS, or catch rotating coverage across the broadcast networks. This time, the potential sources are far more varied. Forty-three percent of those who followed the hearings said they’d gotten at least some of their news about impeachment from a cable network, 39% from local TV news, 36% online, 32% from national TV on a broadcast network, and 28% from social media. Fewer named print media or a conversation with someone else as a source.

(A few caveats on the data: Because more civically engaged people are more likely to take surveys, and because people sometimes overstate their own degree of political awareness, all these numbers may be, if anything, a little high. Because the HuffPost/YouGov survey was conducted online, and framed the question somewhat differently, any comparison with historical data isn’t entirely apples-to-apples.)

There are some political divides on who has been following the impeachment story, and how they’ve chosen to do so. Trump’s opponents, notably, were the most likely to be following along in real-time: Democrats were 18 points likelier than Republicans to say they’d watched at least part of the hearings, rather than watching highlights or reading articles later. And while similar shares in each party reported following the news on cable, they chose different sources: 82% of Republicans who followed the hearings on cable said they relied on Fox for at least some coverage, with just 22% saying they’d watched CNN, and 15% that they’d tuned into MSNBC. By contrast, 62% of Democrats who followed the hearings on cable said they’d watched CNN and 61% said that they’d watched MSNBC, with just 18% looking at Fox.

But the poll also highlights the divide between the most politically active Americans and those who are less focused. Only half of Americans say that news and current events matter a lot in their daily life, with the rest finding current events irrelevant, or saying they’re not sure. Just a quarter of Americans said they’d paid a lot of attention to the news last Wednesday, a day that included both Gordon Sondland’s testimony in the impeachment hearings and a Democratic primary debate. Only 35% said the news that day seemed even somewhat busier than average.

Those people who haven’t yet reached a conclusion about impeachment are particularly unlikely to be paying much attention. In the HuffPost/YouGov survey, 13% of Americans said that they weren’t sure whether or not Trump should be impeached. Among that group, just a fifth said the news was relevant to their lives, and only 10% that they’d paid a lot of attention to the news Wednesday. Only 13% had caught any of the hearings.

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The HuffPost/YouGov poll consisted of 1,000 completed interviews conducted Nov. 20-22 among U.S. adults, using a sample selected from YouGov’s opt-in online panel to match the demographics and other characteristics of the adult U.S. population.

HuffPost has teamed up with YouGov to conduct daily opinion polls. You can learn more about this project and take part in YouGov’s nationally representative opinion polling. More details on the polls’ methodology are available here.

Most surveys report a margin of error that represents some but not all potential survey errors. YouGov’s reports include a model-based margin of error, which rests on a specific set of statistical assumptions about the selected sample rather than the standard methodology for random probability sampling. If these assumptions are wrong, the model-based margin of error may also be inaccurate. Click here for a more detailed explanation of the model-based margin of error.

This article originally appeared on HuffPost.