The media industry is unique in its ability to spread information that may influence the democratic process. There is ample evidence that news coverage influences voting and policy-making, and this issue has become even more prominent after the controversy over the role of ‘fake news’ in the 2016 US presidential election.

A powerful defence against fake news is real news. Voters are less likely to be affected by false and skewed reports if they receive unbiased political information from a diverse set of reliable sources. But how many of us actually do? Do some of us access a lot of high-quality news while others are information-poor?

It is crucial to distinguish between media production and consumption. In Western democracies, the truth is out there. A number of sources produce high-quality political information and make it available on the internet at zero or low cost. But is this information actually consumed? In other words, where do people get their news? Our study analyses detailed online survey data from the Reuters Institute on where people get their news in 36 countries. The sample includes 21 European countries, six Asian countries, the five ‘Anglo offshoots’ and four Latin American countries.

To verify the credibility of the online survey method, where possible we compare our results with other news consumption datasets using different methodologies, such as face-to-face or phone surveys. In the two countries where data is available to permit such a comparison – the United States and the UK– we find highly similar results across surveys.

It is surprisingly difficult to obtain useful evidence in this area. Almost all existing news consumption datasets are platform-centric. This means that they only cover one particular platform, such as television ratings, newspaper circulation information or any number of internet usage surveys. Data like these provide a highly incomplete picture of news consumption, as the following example illustrates. Suppose we learn from one dataset that 50 per cent of the population get their news from television and we learn from another dataset that 50 per cent read a newspaper. If we cannot link individuals across these two datasets, this information is consistent with a situation where every citizen has one source of information or with a totally lopsided situation where half of the population is completely uninformed.

Our research instead exploits person-centric datasets. For a random sample of citizens, we aim to learn about all the news sources they use, including traditional platforms like newspapers and television as well as every form of new media – online versions of old platforms, pure internet sources, news aggregators and social media such as Facebook. Our analysis of these data highlights three global patterns: (1) a link between socio-economic inequality and information inequality; (2) high levels of concentration in media power; and (3) dominant rankings by television companies. Our research also highlights international differences in the role of public service broadcasting.

First, we find that consumption of news is highly unequal, with low-income and low-education voters using considerably fewer information sources. All else equal, the average college-educated respondent in the top third of the income distribution consumes two more news sources than the average high school graduate in the bottom third of the income distribution.

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