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Home » Fewer than a third of Americans believe local news holds public officials accountable, poll finds

Fewer than a third of Americans believe local news holds public officials accountable, poll finds

This article was originally published on Northwestern University’s Medill Local News Initiative website and is republished here with permission.

Fewer than a third of Americans believe that local news media hold public officials accountable, a finding that calls into question whether local journalism is fulfilling  one of its primary missions, according to a national poll commissioned by the Medill School at Northwestern University

The survey, conducted on behalf of Medill by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, collected responses from more than 1,000 Americans about their consumption of and attitudes toward local news sources. In response to the statement “My local news media hold public officials accountable,” only 3.9% replied “strongly agree” and 26.5% replied “agree,” a total of 30.4% supporting the premise. On the negative side, 11.3% responded “strongly disagree” while 18.8% responded “disagree” for a total of 30.1%. In the middle were 38.7 in the “neither” category.

“There is a lack of trust in institutions in general, so that may be driving some of this,” said Tim Franklin, the senior associate dean and John M. Mutz Chair in Local News at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. “But I think that given how critical this role is to democratic institutions and communities and to the state of our democracy, this is a red flare.”

Stephanie Edgerly, the Medill professor and associate dean of research who oversaw the survey, said the low percentage may also reflect news organizations’ ability — or inability — to inform readers about the work they’re doing.

“Maybe it’s not being communicated to the public as to how local news media hold public officials accountable, what their job is in doing that, or how local journalists are present at city hall meetings,” Edgerly said. “The public just sees the story that’s written up but does not understand what role local journalists played in covering it. In general, journalists have not been great at communicating the behind-the-scenes work of their reporting process to the public.”

To Tom Rosenstiel, the University of Maryland’s Eleanor Merrill Visiting Professor on the Future of Journalism, this finding is a logical domino drop amid the shrinkage of newsrooms nationwide, particularly in smaller markets.

“The number of people working in newspapers has gone down, and the number of people in local newspapers especially has been hard hit,” Rosenstiel said. Given that watchdog reporting is more labor-intensive and costly than day-to-day coverage, he added, it follows that this area has become diminished.

At the same time, Rosenstiel said, another of the survey’s findings pointed toward a different explanation. Respondents indicated that the most common way they consume local news is through television (31.8% daily), followed by social media (30.8% daily), with radio (including podcasts) and newspapers (including print and digital readers) lagging behind at 19.7% and 14.8%, respectively.

“Having studied local TV news extensively over the years, I can tell you that they don’t cover a lot of local government,” Rosenstiel said, noting that consultants consider local government coverage a ratings loser and steer stations away from it. “If the primary source of local news (for many people) is local television, it’s not a shock that less than a third of people would say they think local news is holding public officials accountable.”

Philip Napoli, director of the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media & Democracy at Duke University, said the survey reflects the “continued resilience of TV as a local news source” in this increasingly digital age.

“People in our field, nobody expects local TV to continue to rise to the top, but it continually does,” he said, adding that although he applies a grain of salt to surveys based on self-reported behaviors, “there’s enough consistency that we still see TV land at the top of these surveys that I have to assume that it’s valid.”

In the Medill survey, local television news consumption had the biggest age-group split among four media options, with 56.9% in the 60-plus demographic getting their daily local news from TV compared with only 13% in the 18-29 age group. Edgerly said this age divide was so pronounced that she rechecked it several times.

“I think it has to do with the ritual habit of television news being baked into daily life,” Edgerly said. “You turn the TV on while you’re making dinner. You sit down for dinner with the TV on. It’s part of a morning ritual. A lot of daily habits involve local television news consumption.”

Rosenstiel called that reliance on older viewers “a huge red flag for local TV. You can cut the cable cord and still have access to local TV news, but if you have no relationship with local TV news when you’re 29 or 20 or 25, it’s unlikely you’re going to forge that unless they create some new product or introduce themselves in a significant way to those audiences on social platforms.”

What’s more, he added, some local TV news calling cards are at risk of becoming obsolete.

“The things that they have made their living on — which is traffic, weather and breaking news — are all things that people can get through digital platforms in some ways more efficiently than through television,” Rosenstiel said.

The 60-plus audience also reported the highest daily local news consumption through print and digital newspapers but at a much smaller number, 22.2%, compared with 8.4% for the lowest group, the 30-44 demo. There was even less range among those who get their local news through radio; the 45-59 age group reported the highest consumption at 24.3% with 60+ (23.2%) and 18-29 (20.3%) not far behind and 30-44 (11.5%) in the rear. The inclusion of podcasts in this category may help explain why the youngest group reported a higher level of engagement than the 30-44 group.

“I thought it was interesting that radio/podcasting beats out newspapers in terms of daily habits,” Edgerly said. “It suggests that radio/podcasting has become much more of a daily ritual than reading newspaper stories.”

At the same time, when the survey considered weekly habits, newspapers narrowed the gap on radio. “Local radio seems to be much more of a daily habit, whereas local newspaper reading is a little bit more of a weekly habit.”

Only 14.8% of respondents said they read local newspapers daily, while 28.9% said they read them weekly, and 38.7% said they never read them.

Social media was the most evenly divided among the age groups, with 18-29 on top with 34.2% and 60-plus at the bottom with 26.6%. The social media category may be the slipperiest given that respondents may say they’re getting their local news from social media even if they’re being prompted to click on, say, a story from a local newspaper website.

When these local media consumption figures are broken down by gender, the biggest split lies in the social media category, with 36.2% of women getting their local news from this source vs. 25.6 of men.

In terms of race, Black consumers reported the highest percentage of those getting their local news from three different media: TV (40.5%, with white consumers second at 32.6%), radio (25%, with Hispanic consumers second at 23.4%) and newspapers (20.4%, with white consumers second at 15.6%). Hispanic consumers reported the highest percentage of local news from social media (37.7%) and tied with English-speaking Asian adults for the lowest in newspapers (9.3%). Asian consumers had the lowest percentage in radio (7.6%) and were most likely to get their local news from TV or social media (both 22.2%).

Aside from the statement about holding public officials accountable, the survey also elicited responses to “I trust my local news media to get things right” (41% agree, 21.8% disagree), “Local journalists are in touch with the needs of my community” (36.3% agree, 21.9% disagree) and “My identities are represented in local news coverage (31.8% agree, 22.6% disagree). The finding about “trust” is consistent with a Knight Foundation poll from earlier this year that concluded that “44% of Americans have high emotional trust in local news organizations, compared with 21% who have high emotional trust in national news organizations.”

In the Medill poll, Black consumers reported the highest percentages in agreeing that local news represents their identities and holds public officials accountable but the lowest percentages in trusting local news to get things right and be in touch with community needs.

Edgerly said this relatively brief survey should serve as a jumping-off point for further research. The survey was designed as part of a class project in Edgerly’s undergraduate journalism class.

Napoli suggested one topic to be explored is the rise of neighborhood Listservs — emails distributed to community mailing lists — as a local news source.

“It popped up enough (in focus groups) that if I were going to do this sort of survey going forward, would it surprise me to see community Listservs perform better than newspapers at this point?” Napoli said. “It would not.”

For details about how this survey was conducted, please see this article.

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