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Democracy failure alert: Americans’ trust of local news is on the brink

People have always felt better about their local news resources than national outlets, but even that is starting to change in our era of hyperpolarization.

Democracy failure alert: Americans’ trust of local news is on the brink
[Photo: urbanbuzz/iStock]

Despite living in the age of “Fake News,” most Americans agree that local news outlets do a pretty good job covering their communities. But that trust varies strongly by party lines—and there are plenty of topics people think aren’t covered well enough. Factor in that most people trust local news more than national news nowadays (see: your views on Fox News or CNN, depending on what side of the aisle you’re on), and that divisiveness and disappointment signals trouble for democracy.

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“Those of us who care about news, who believe that it’s critical for a democracy to have a set of common facts on which interpretation and debate are built, should take really seriously the warning signs, the cracks, and the fissures around trust in local news,” says Sam Gill, a vice president at the nonprofit Knight Foundation, which has been working with polling and consulting agency Gallup to produce a series of reports on the intersection of trust, media, and democracy.

[Image: courtesy Knight Foundation/Gallup]

Previously, the Knight Foundation reported that most Americans have lost confidence in media as a whole over the last decade. That’s particularly true of national news agencies. But new research built on a representative survey of Americans shows that local news is a sort of last bastion. Overall, 75% of Democrats believe local news agencies are doing a “good” or “excellent” job in sharing honest daily updates about society. That number drops to 56% among independents and 54% among Republicans.

That’s not a resounding vote of confidence, but perhaps it’s a salvageable point to start rebuilding trust. Knight and Gallup’s latest study, functionally titled State of Public Trust in Local News, shows 79% of people think local news does outshine national in delivering information that’s relevant to their daily life. Another 66% think local outlets are less likely to be biased. And 59% believe they’re better at getting the facts right.

“At a time when there’s anxiety about the way in which the national news media, particularly cable news formats, either contribute to or exacerbates feelings of polarization, particularly in politics, I think it’s really important to acknowledge that local media continues to some extent keep itself apart from or rise above this trend,” Gill says. “I think what really jumped out to us and what’s very concerning is that people see local media [drifting] away from a place of moderation.”

In terms of comparative community trust, the new research ranks local journalism second to last, below people’s belief in their nearby cops, courts, and churches, and only just above the trust they place in local government to do a decent job. (Nearly everyone surveyed agreed news agencies need to do more to keep politicians in check.) “I think we also saw that even though local media is more trusted than national media, it’s not that trusted,” Gill says.

[Image: courtesy Knight Foundation/Gallup]

Part of that may be because of coverage gaps. The report notes that people generally approve of the sort of coverage they’re seeing on topics like weather, sports, entertainment, crime, and traffic issues. That approval rating dips substantially when it comes to stories on the environment or social and cultural concerns “like abortion, race relations, gun rights and LGBT rights,” it notes. Only about one-third of readers like the coverage they’re seeing around those things. But whereas people dissatisfied with the traditional topics of weather and sports mostly don’t like the style of coverage, many readers were upset about the lower rate of stories around these controversial topics. Per the report:

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“Insufficient attention to drug addiction, the local environment and education may point to a mismatch between the importance Americans attach to these issues and the amount of coverage local media give them.”

There’s likely room for more well-balanced stories that spark conversation across many of these controversial fronts. The onus is on news practitioners to find their own locally relevant ways to explore those issues. “The polls show that what national news doesn’t do well is to tell a story about a place that’s connected to people in the world that they know and care about,” says Gill. Instead, people praised non-content-related things such as good production values. “And my inference from the polling is that the thing that really drives trusted local news is that sense of connection, that this is, these are stories about where I live in a place that I feel connected to.”

Gill believes readers, viewers, businesses, and other potential supports should think about reinvesting in the sort of outlets that continue to provide that value, in hopes that those same places are paying attention to where they’re coming up short. “The big thing I think people should take away from this is that trusted local news is not assured.” Without it, another way to unite people and spark new conversations could be lost.

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About the author

Ben Paynter is a senior writer at Fast Company covering social impact, the future of philanthropy, and innovative food companies. His work has appeared in Wired, Bloomberg Businessweek, and the New York Times, among other places.

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