Rate Your Local News
What is the quality of the local news you are receiving? Does the news in your local newspaper or on social media help you to be safe and healthy? To spend your time and money wisely? To make informed decisions about candidates for local and state office?
A strong local news organization helps us as individuals solve everyday problems and unites us as a community to tackle the big ones. As we’ve lost newspapers and journalists over the past decade, researchers have found that both the quantity and quality of local news declined. In 2012, at the request of the Federal Communications Commission, a group of social scientists identified eight categories of critical information that residents of any community need in order to make wise quality-of-life decisions. This includes news about education, economic development, the environment and politics.
Here’s your chance to evaluate how well your local news organization is providing you with critical information. We’ve designed a simple exercise that you can download at usnewsdeserts.com. Once you’ve filled out the chart, you can then compare your results with what researchers have found. Those results are listed below.
Activists and individuals at the community level have an important role to play. If you find your local news organization is providing you with a healthy diet of critical news, then support it. If not, then lobby local and corporate owners to address the news shortage.
How to Fill In the Chart
To begin, choose one or more of the news sources you typically consult. Over a period of four days, track the number of local stories produced in each category. To keep it simple, tally only the top stories on the home page of a website, the front page of a newspaper, or the morning/evening newscast you typically watch.
As an example, consider a story on the front page of your newspaper about an upcoming meeting of the local school board to discuss standardized test results. You will be answering these four questions to assess both the quality and quantity of news about the meeting.
- How many local stories were about the school board meeting on this particular day? Assuming there is only one, you would enter a 1 or a check mark in the column marked “education.” If there are two stories you would enter a 2, and then answer the following questions about both stories:
- Was the story about the upcoming meeting produced by a local journalist? (For example, was there a byline on the story about the meeting?) If so, you would enter a 1 or check mark for each bylined story.
- Did the story provide you with useful facts and information? (For example: the time and date of the school board meeting) Enter a 1 or a check mark if the story or stories provide basic information.
- Did the story provide context and/or analysis that could inform your decision-making? (For example, did the story discuss local testing results from previous years and provide comparisons to other schools in the district, as well as to statewide averages.) If the story provided useful context and analysis, then enter a 1 or a check mark.
- If you are using numerals, you can add up the total score. The higher the score, the higher the quality of the story or stories in that category.
What Researchers Have Found
Here are the general trends from recent studies of local news, including those produced by researchers at Duke University,352 the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill353 and the University of Minnesota354:
- Newspapers, even in their diminished state, still produce more local stories that address a critical information need than any other news outlet. A Duke study of 100 mid-sized communities in 2016 found that newspapers accounted for 60 percent of stories produced in a typical week that addressed a critical information need. By comparison, only 15 percent of the stories produced by other outlets – television, radio, and online news sites – were both locally produced and met a critical information need.
- Newspapers also tend to provide a greater variety of stories that address a critical information need. Newspapers were much more likely, for example, to produce stories about education and politics than either television or social media, according to a UNC study of the state’s news outlets in 2019.
- Television and social media news stories tend to skew heavily toward one critical information category – emergencies and public safety, including crime. Many of those were breaking news stories that did not provide context and analysis.
- The vast majority of the stories produced by regional television stations focus on newsworthy events, issues or people in the city where the station is located. Fewer than 10 percent of the stories are about events or issues outside the metro area, and almost all of those are human-interest features.
- Online outlets are still relatively rare in mid-sized communities. They produced only 10 percent of the 16,000 news stories in the Duke survey.
- One in five of the 100 mid-sized communities surveyed by Duke in 2016 had no locally produced news that addressed any of the critical information needs. Those underserved communities tended to have large Hispanic populations and be close to major metro areas.