Television Is Top News Source During Pandemic, Illinois Poll Finds

During the pandemic, Illinois residents have gotten their news most often from local and national television rather than from newspapers or radio, according to a poll commissioned by Northwestern University.

The poll also showed that when Illinoisans want local information about COVID-19, news outlets in their area are the primary way they get it, rather than social media, government websites or politicians.

The polling on COVID-19, conducted March 30 to April 17 with 1,845 respondents from the Qualtrics online survey panel, is part of a larger, ongoing Northwestern project to study media, politics and citizen learning.

Among the key players in analyzing the poll findings are Stephanie Edgerly, Medill Associate Professor; Rachel Davis Mersey, Medill Professor and Associate Dean of Research; and Tabitha Bonilla, Assistant Professor at Northwestern’s School of Education and Social Policy.

Edgerly said the timing of the poll was interesting.

“It was right during the early period of people social-distancing, with a lot of people’s habits changing, like working from home, or not working. And so it’s a really interesting window to measure people’s news habits,” Edgerly said, but she cautioned: “It’s an atypical period, so I wouldn’t want to read into this being what people’s news habits are like all the time.”

The poll asked respondents the number of days in the last week they had consumed various types of media. National TV news was first with a mean of 4.42 days, followed by 4.36 for local TV news. The lowest were national newspapers (print or online) with 2.01 and radio news (live or podcasts) with 1.84. Overall, 62% of respondents said they consumed local TV news four or more days in the past week, compared to 20.7% who consumed local TV news one day or less.

“I think it speaks to the accessibility of television. Even in a world where you have many different options, a lot of people find … the video storytelling environment to be something that they were relying on,” Edgerly said.

I think it speaks to the accessibility of television. Even in a world where you have many different options, a lot of people find … the video storytelling environment to be something that they were relying on.

Stephanie Edgerly, Medill Associate Professor

Older people consumed TV news more often, according to the poll, with those 65 or older registering 5.44 for national TV news and 5.60 for local TV news, compared to those ages 18-to-29 with 3.54 for national TV news and 3.25 for local TV news.

Focusing specifically on local COVID-19 information, another question asked: “If you wanted to know more about the spread of COVID-19 in your local community, which are you likely to do?”

The options, and the percentage who said they were extremely likely or somewhat likely to do that, were: Read or watch local news coverage (82.4%), use a search engine, like Google (77.9%), look at a government website or newsletter (71.4%), see what is posted on social media (44.5%), look at a non-government website or newsletter (43%), ask a friend or family member (43%), contact an elected official in your community (30.5%) and ask someone who works in your local community, such as a teacher, librarian or pastor (26.8%).

“Local news rises to the top compared to interpersonal options or social media options,” Edgerly said. “… The finding points to the utility of local news in times of uncertainty.”

Respondents also were asked whether they actively avoid the news. Even in the midst of the pandemic, there was significant news avoidance: 29.1% said they never avoid the news, while 53.3% said sometimes, 10.6% said often and 6.9% said they always avoid the news. People whose formal education stopped at high school were twice as likely to be frequent news avoiders as were people with graduate degrees.

Edgerly expressed surprise that radio didn’t do better, and said she frequently listens to the local public radio station WBEZ. “That just goes to show you that your habits are not necessarily indicative of what a majority of the state is doing,” she said.

The overall project about media and citizen learning involves Northwestern scholars from the School of Education and Social Policy, the School of Communication, Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences, McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, the Kellogg School of Management and the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications.

Funding for the research comes from The Alumnae of Northwestern University, Medill and the Center for Civic Engagement.

About the author

Mark Jacob


A former Metro Editor at the Chicago Tribune and Sunday Editor at the Chicago Sun-Times, Jacob is chronicling the Local News Initiative’s progress for the project’s website. He is the co-author of eight books on history and photography.

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