Media Diets and Contested Political Events: The Analysis of News Consumption during Salient Elections in Spain
Much has been discussed about the predominant modes of exposure to political information online. Yet, there is still disagreement on whether audiences are segregated into enclaves or they scatter, instead, across the news media domain with overlapping media diets. In our study we use observational data to assess how audiences allocate their attention online during two high-profile political elections in Spain: a contentious regional vote in Catalonia, which was effectively a referendum about separationist goals (September 2015), and the general elections for central government, which took place a few months later (December 2015). One of our goals is to compare audience behavior during elections, and (using data from a different time period) during months with no major political events. We aim to disentangle the patterns of news consumption and whether they are wider (or narrower) as major political event unfold.
In order to answer our research questions, we triangulate data sources and combine different methodological approaches. Our study overcomes the usual limitations of data based on self-reported media usage because it is mainly based on observational data from a representative panel of thirty thousand individuals. This panel tracks the browsing behavior of internet users and it has been collected and provided by the official audience meter in Spain, ComScore. Based on this data we build the audience network of a sample of most visited news media in Spain and map their total audience overlap. We then use analytical tools borrowed from network science to 1)assess audience dynamics during the Spanish general elections in December 2015; and 2) analyze the audience behavior during the Catalan elections, unprecedented in the polarization that arose around the question of independence from Spain.
Our research builds on prior work(Webster & Ksiazek, 2012)to define audience fragmentation, which we use to refer to a wide distribution of audiences among media outlets, that is, to a diverse news diet. Following previous research, we expect the audience to be more fragmented (so more diversified) when facing a salient political event like general elections(Dvir-Gvirsman, Tzfati, & Menchen-Trevino, 2014; Garrett, Carnahan, & Lynch, 2013; Garrett & Resnick, 2011; Gentzkow & Shapiro, 2011; Prior, 2013; Trilling & Schoenbach, 2013; Webster & Ksiazek, 2012). On the other hand, we expect the overlapping of media audiences to be less common in the context of a highly polarized political event(Stroud, 2008), which in our study is represented by the Catalan elections. Our expectation is that, during highly contested political events, audiences concentrate around separate clusters of news providers.