Local journalism simply isn’t what it used to be. It began with the death of your local hometown newspaper. It’s been compounded by an online media industry that’s too busy laying off existing reporters to spend much time expanding local reporting. Now the last bastion of local journalism, local TV broadcasters, are increasingly being hoovered up by giant companies for which real journalism isn't much of a priority.
A new joint study out of Stanford and Emory University indicates that this shift is having a profoundly-negative impact on the American public, public discourse, and the democratic process. The researchers found that the erosion of quality local reporting is not only leaving America less informed, but more divided than ever before.
The full study, now peer-reviewed and published this week in the American Political Science Review, took a specific interest in Sinclair Broadcasting, which has been under fire in recent years for hoovering up the nation’s local broadcasters, then replacing their already-shaky local reporting with what many argue is little more than glorified propaganda. Sinclair’s policy of forcing these local broadcasters to air homogenized, facts-optional “must run” segments went viral last year when Deadspin illustrated what this looks like in practice.
The Emory and Stanford study dissected both the content and viewership of 743 local news stations over the latter two thirds of 2017, analyzing some 7.41 million 2.5-minute segments. The study found that when Sinclair acquired a local news outlet, it unsurprisingly resulted in a notable spike in nationwide news coverage, and a notable decline in actual local reporting. Often that’s simply a matter of cost. Covering local town halls, political campaigns, and regional issues often requires a lot of legwork larger companies aren’t keen to pay for at scale. Still, the end result is a public that no longer really understands what’s happening in their own towns and cities, opening the door to less meaningful oversight of local politicians.
“Over the longer term, this kind of consolidation has the potential to give significant electoral power to the owners of large media conglomerates and reduce the ability of voters to hold their local elected officials accountable,” study author Greg Martin told Motherboard in an email. The study found that after Sinclair acquires a local broadcaster, ratings tend to dip, suggesting that viewers don’t actually like this shift away from genuine local reporting. But because this same phenomenon is likely playing out at other local broadcasters and newspapers, they’re left with few options to turn to if they want to try and remain informed on local issues. Other studies have shown that when a town loses its local paper, residents tend to lean more on highly-polarized, purely-partisan national coverage of issues, reducing the number of locals who are willing to vote across party lines. One study in particular found that when a local newspaper closes, voters are 1.9 percent more likely to vote for the same party for president and senator, instead of voting across party lines. That may not seem statistically significant, but the researchers noted it can be enough to swing an election one way or another. “House races in Minnesota’s 1st district, Utah’s 4th district, and Illinois’s 13th district were all decided by less than that margin,” the researchers said.
In other words, when you rely on national, highly-polarized news to inform you, you’re more likely to fall into well-worn partisan grooves, and less-likely to actually weigh an individual politician or issue on the actual merits. That, in turn, only amplifies existing entrenched ideologies, making us less likely to open our minds to new possibilities.
Victor Pickard, an American media studies scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, told Motherboard this ongoing shift is thanks in large part to the FCC’s decision to aggressively roll-back decades-old media consolidation rules designed specifically to prevent precisely the problems we’re currently seeing now.
"Studies show that those lacking access to reliable local news—especially newspapers—are less informed about politics, less civically engaged, and less likely to vote," Pickard said. "Without local journalists, there is also less accountability and a rise of corruption and mismanagement in local governments. The emergence of vast 'news deserts' across the country is an enormous social problem that requires a sustained public policy response." Sinclair made headlines last year for its attempted $4 billion acquisition of Tribune Media, which would have given Sinclair ownership of roughly 230 local broadcast stations reaching 72 percent of US homes. But Sinclair’s sales pitch was seen as so incredibly misleading that even the industry-allied FCC was forced to retreat from the deal.
Still, in the lead up to the deal, the FCC stripped away numerous rules designed to protect the integrity and diversity of local media. These were rules the FCC tried to claim were no longer necessary thanks to the rise of online journalism. But again, these new media empires often lack the funds, interest, or incentive to track local issues at the same depth as quality local operations.
There’s something indisputably broken in a culture that can afford to throw millions of dollars at toddler Instagram influencers, yet somehow can’t figure out how to fund quality local journalism. Finding alternative funding opportunities will be the priority over the next decade, Martin noted.
“Regulatory pressure could also force Google and Facebook to share more ad revenue with media outlets,” he argued. “And there have been some efforts from groups like ProPublica, or the Knight Foundation project that just launched, to support local journalism on a nonprofit basis.”
Whenever the post-Pai FCC era arrives, experts believe the agency would be well-served by taking a closer look at this and numerous other similar reports all saying the same thing: the protection of diverse, local journalism is incredibly important not only for the health and welfare of the country, but for democracy itself.