It’s no secret that Republicans really distrust the media. In fact, that distrust is increasingly an important part of their political identity.
For a long time, understanding where Republicans primarily got their news was pretty straightforward, too. Unlike Democrats, Republicans, by and large, turn to just one source for all their news: Fox News. But with the advent of news networks even further to the right than Fox News — One America News Network and Newsmax — that’s changing.
OANN and Newsmax still make up just a small sliver of Americans’ overall media diet, and there’s, of course, a lot of overlap in viewership between those two networks and Fox News. But there are some signs that OANN and Newsmax are replacing Fox News as the primary news sources for at least some Republicans. I’m the research director at the Public Religion Research Institute, and in a March survey we conducted with Interfaith Youth Core on COVID-19 and conspiracy beliefs, we found that Fox News had fallen in popularity among Republicans, with just 27 percent saying it was their go-to news source versus 40 percent last September. What’s more, 7 percent of Republicans listed a far-right news network they preferred instead. That means they took the time to type in an “other” response in our text-box field, as it was not provided as a choice.1 Only a handful did this in September 2020.
To be sure, this shift is small — Fox News is still king among Republicans. But the growing popularity of OANN and Newsmax is important: According to our research, Republicans’ stances on certain issues might be better predicted by their television news habits than by whether they identify as conservative, moderate or liberal.2
We found in our survey, for instance, that Republicans who got their news from OANN or Newsmax were generally more extreme in their beliefs around QAnon and in their refusal to get vaccinated than those who got their news from Fox News. Meanwhile, Fox News Republicans were often more in line with Republicans who got their news from other mainstream outlets.3 Considering Fox News Republicans were once touted as the Republicans with the most extreme views, this signals a real change in the conservative media landscape and suggests that media habits are as important for understanding Republican voters as ideology.
What the best 2020 post-mortem tells us about the electorate
Some of the most substantial daylight we observed between Fox News Republicans and far-right news Republicans was on their beliefs around conspiracy theories — especially the core beliefs of QAnon. Overall, 23 percent of Republicans mostly or completely agree with the core QAnon tenet that “the government, media, and financial worlds in the U.S. are controlled by a group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who run a global child sex trafficking operation.” But Republicans who trust mainstream news sources or Fox News were actually the least likely to believe in the main QAnon conspiracy theory, with just 19 percent and 17 percent, respectively. Meanwhile, Republicans who don’t watch television news, which notably includes those who get news solely from online sources, were considerably more likely to believe in a system run by Satanist pedophiles (27 percent). But by far, the Republicans who were most likely to believe in QAnon were those who trusted far-right news sources (39 percent).
We found a similar gap in Republicans’ willingness to get a COVID-19 vaccine. Overall, Republicans were among those most likely to say they’re hesitant or resistant to getting vaccinated. But 58 percent of Republicans who get their news from mainstream outlets and 54 percent of Republicans who get their news from Fox News said they had either already received a dose of a COVID-19 vaccine or would get vaccinated as soon as possible. Just 32 percent of Republicans who get their news from far-right news sources said the same. What’s more, 32 percent of these Republicans said they would refuse the vaccine, versus 11 percent of Republicans who get their news from mainstream outlets and 16 percent of Republicans who get their news from Fox News. That said, all three groups of Republicans expressed similar levels of hesitancy about getting vaccinated — 31 percent of mainstream news Republicans and 29 percent of Fox News Republicans said they weren’t sure if they’d get vaccinated, compared to 37 percent of far-right news Republicans who said the same.
related: Why Being ‘Anti-Media’ Is Now Part Of The GOP Identity Read more. »
There was also less of a difference between Fox News Republicans and far-right news Republicans when it came to the lie that the 2020 election was stolen from former President Donald Trump. The vast majority of both groups — 86 percent of Fox News Republicans and 96 percent of far-right news Republicans — said the election was stolen, compared to 66 percent of Republicans who do not watch television news and only 44 percent of mainstream news Republicans.
This underscores just how central the “Big Lie” and baseless allegations of election fraud are to Republicans’ political identity. While media diets explain some differences that Republicans have, there is still an overlap between those who trust far-right news outlets versus Fox News — especially where Trump is concerned. That said, we did find differences in how strongly Republicans believed the election had been stolen from Trump based on their media preferences: Forty-six percent of Fox News Republicans completely agreed that the election was stolen (whereas 40 percent mostly agreed), but among far-right news Republicans, 74 percent completely agreed (22 percent mostly agreed).
Media preferences don’t explain all the differences we see among Republicans; as noted, on the question of the “Big Lie,” Fox News Republicans are very much not in sync with Republicans who get their news from mainstream news outlets, even if they do hold this belief less strongly than Republicans who get their news from far-right outlets.
Clearly, though, Republicans are sorting by news sources in a way that independents and Democrats are not,4 and that’s shaping at least some of their beliefs in ways that ideology and partisanship alone don’t explain.
We don’t yet know whether Republicans are choosing their different media sources based on preexisting views, or whether the media sources are actively shaping those views. It’s likely that both forces are at play. But what we do know is that far-right news sources are attracting a small but growing proportion of Republicans — many of whom either already held or developed extreme views — while Fox News, once the go-to source for many on the fringe of the party, may no longer be a hotbed for some of the GOP’s most extreme beliefs.