There is no shortage of surveys indicating many Americans don’t trust the news media. The U.S. registers the lowest levels of trust in news out of 46 countries included in the 2021 Digital News Report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.
But for many in the U.S., the medium matters, and local TV news remains among the most trusted ways Americans get their news. When it comes to local politics, coronavirus information and weather forecasts, more Americans turn to local TV than any other news medium, according to the Reuters Institute report, based on a YouGov survey of more than 92,000 news consumers.
That means the judgment of local TV news directors, producers and reporters shapes not only the information viewers absorb, but how they interpret what’s happening in their communities and nationally.
“It is not simply the case that only outlets like Fox News or MSNBC persuade viewers — so can local news, at least with certain types of content,” University of Pennsylvania political scientist Matthew Levendusky writes in an April 2021 paper discussed below.
With stories like COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy, everyday financial stress and school reopenings playing out in different ways across different communities, TV continues to be an important source of reliable, relevant information — so we wanted to see what the research had to say about the state of local TV news. The five recent studies summarized here investigate these topics:
- How local TV news has affected public perceptions of COVID-19 health and safety protocols.
- Sinclair Broadcast Group and the rise of national coverage on local TV news.
- Changes in how local TV journalists do their jobs amid budget cuts and ownership changes.
Keep reading for insights from these papers.
Rural residents exposed to big city TV news more likely to follow COVID safety guidance
The Effect of Big-City News on Rural America during the COVID-19 Pandemic
Eunji Kim, Michael Shepherd and Joshua Clinton. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, September 2020.
Research published in September 2020 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reveals the importance of local television news on how people perceive COVID-19 safety guidance.
“For some rural residents, their local news often focuses on urban communities with issues quite different from their own,” the authors write. They offer Sullivan and Delaware counties in upstate New York as examples. Sullivan County residents get their local news from New York City-based affiliates. Delaware County, just north of Sullivan, gets local news from TV stations in Binghamton, a city of 45,000.
“Largely by chance, depending on where they live, otherwise similar rural residents receive their local news from stations located in cities experiencing substantially different versions of the COVID-19 outbreak,” the authors write. They examine stats from mobility data firm cuebiq on the percentage of residents in 771 rural counties across the country who stayed home during the first week of April 2020.
They also surveyed 9,081 residents from 705 of those counties on their efforts to social distance, their media consumption and concerns about COVID-19. All respondents were white, in order to avoid “differences due to race and ethnicity,” the authors write. The overall racial makeups of the counties studied were 85%-90% white on average.
Rural residents exposed to local news from a top-25 media market reached were more likely to social distance than those outside of a top-100 media market. Top-25 media markets, ranked by the number of households reached, include New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia and Dallas. Rural residents in top-25 TV news zones were more likely to say they wore a mask outside during the period studied and more likely to stay home, except for trips to buy food. The authors note that political ideology remains a stronger predictor of whether someone followed pandemic health and safety guidance.
“Our results show that rural individuals who may have otherwise been predisposed to be less likely to engage in social distancing during the COVID-19 outbreak are more likely to do so than similar rural individuals because they happen to receive their local television news from one of the more impacted cities,” they conclude.
How local is local TV news? The influence of Sinclair Broadcasting
As University of Virginia media studies professor Christopher Ali notes in a recent book chapter, it’s no longer the norm that “broadcasters should be responsible to, and reflective of, their communities of license,” with the Federal Communications Commission, the agency that regulates broadcast TV, having left it over the past three decades “to broadcasters, and not the regulatory mechanisms at the disposal of public policy, to ensure local communities are served.”
To that end, it’s impossible to discuss local TV news without mentioning Sinclair Broadcast Group, the nation’s biggest owner of local TV news stations. The company has major network affiliates including Fox, ABC, CBS and NBC in 86 of 210 local markets as of June 2021, according to the company’s most recent quarterly report to the Securities and Exchange Commission.
How Does Local TV News Change Viewers’ Attitudes? The Case of Sinclair Broadcasting
Matthew Levendusky. Political Communication, April 2021.
By the mid-2010s, many Sinclair stations were located in key presidential battleground states, helping to consolidate its influence as a national political powerhouse. As Levendusky explains in his April 2021 paper, local news programming on Sinclair stations “focuses more on national topics, and presents them with a right-wing slant.”
But in March 2021 the pandemic had halted local ad revenue and the company announced layoffs of 5% of its workforce.
While local TV news reporters have traditionally covered local stories, Levendusky explores how Sinclair’s station acquisitions from 2008 to 2018 bubbled up to national politics — specifically, viewers’ perceptions of President Barack Obama.
He writes that Sinclair “embraces the ‘cable newsification’ of local news, where local news comes to look more like the partisan outlets on cable,” concluding that “when Sinclair buys a local TV station, there is no effect on viewers’ underlying predispositions, such as their partisanship or their liberal-conservative self-identification. But their approval of President Obama decreases, and they become less likely to vote for Democratic presidential candidates as well.”
Likewise, a February 2019 paper in the American Political Science Review explores how news content changed at 10 stations Sinclair acquired in early September 2017.
The authors analyze transcripts of 7.41 million 2.5-minute segments from 743 local news stations across the country during the last eight months of 2017, finding that “Sinclair-owned stations consistently spend more time on average on national politics and less on local politics.”
The stations Sinclair bought in 2017 on average spent 25% more time covering national politics than the sample average through the end of the year, at the expense of local political coverage. Those new Sinclair stations also adopted a more conservative slant relative to other stations in their markets, the authors find.
The authors also measure change in viewership following a change in ownership.
“If anything, viewers prefer the more locally focused and ideologically neutral coverage to the more nationally focused and ideologically conservative coverage,” the authors write. “Existing Sinclair stations acquired prior to 2017 see significantly lower viewership for their news broadcasts compared with other stations operating in the same market, paying a ratings penalty of about one percentage point.”
The changing work of local TV journalists
Follow the Leader? Optimism and Efficacy on Solo Journalism of Local Television Journalists and News Directors
Justin Blankenship and Daniel Riffe. Journalism Practice, December 2019.
Journalists at news organizations of all sizes and across all media have for years been asked to do more with fewer financial and staff resources.
Communication researchers often explain that this has increasingly resulted in reporters taking on “solo journalism” projects.
As the authors of a December 2019 paper in Journalism Practice put it: “Solo journalism is the work practice in which a single reporter is expected to gather information, write, shoot video, and edit their news stories on their own.”
From December 2015 to March 2016, the authors surveyed 159 local news station directors across the country and 222 reporters working at those stations to understand the effectiveness of solo journalism at TV newsrooms.
The authors initially sent surveys to 396 directors in 209 market areas, with 40% of directors completing the survey. Among the journalists, 1,856 surveys were sent with a 12% response rate. Of the news directors, 17% worked at stations in a top-30 market; 20% worked at medium-sized stations, ranked from 31 to 70 in market size; and 63% were at small stations, from 71 to 210 in market size.
As for the journalists, 12% worked in a large market, 47% were in a medium-sized market and 41% were in a small market. About half of journalists and roughly one-quarter of news directors were women.
More than 90% of news directors reported they had some solo journalists on staff, while 60% of journalists said they sometimes worked as solo journalists. Both agreed solo journalism represented “the future” of TV news, with journalists more likely to feel solo journalism is bad for the industry and its rise “mostly due to economic reasons.”
“As the ‘decision makers’ in the newsroom in several respects, it is incumbent on [news directors] to understand the unique challenges that solo journalism presents and make sure that reporters have the support they need to succeed,” the authors write. “They should also understand that their news staff may not share the same perception of solo journalism as they do. Effectively communicating that the reason that more solo journalists are being hired (whether it is fully economic or not) and finding ways to demonstrate the advantages of the work practice will likely help increase morale and motivation.”
News Work: The Impact of Corporate-implemented Technology on Local Television Newsroom Labor
Carey Higgins-Dobney. Journalism Practice, May 2020.
In addition to doing more with less, TV journalists are often expected to incorporate new technologies into their work with an eye toward maximizing profits for conglomerate owners, explains Carey Higgins-Dobney, a communications professor at California State University, Fresno, in a May 2020 paper in Journalism Practice.
“Field equipment is smaller, lighter, and able to be linked to a station via cell phone, allowing one person the physical ability, although no extra time, to do the jobs previously completed by two or three, eliminating the ‘need’ for photographers and engineers,” writes Higgins-Dobney.
In late 2016 and early 2019, Higgins-Dobney gathered initial survey responses from 81 TV news employees, followed by hourlong interviews with 32 TV news employees, some of whom also took the survey. All participants worked at stations in top-25 markets. Survey takers and interviewees included producers, reporters, writers, editors, engineers and other on-air and behind-the-scenes TV newsroom employees.
Of those who took the survey, 83% said they were producing stories or providing technical support for more newscasts than they had previously. Of those, 71% had not seen a pay bump and 10% had taken a pay cut since their workloads increased.
“Beyond their paychecks, concerns of journalistic integrity, accuracy, and professionalism abound as they complete more duties for more information platforms than ever before while learning new corporate-implemented technologies and juggling the duties of consolidated, and often changing, job descriptions,” Higgins-Dobney writes.
One producer interviewed called it a “classic newsroom sink or swim. We’re going to throw it in there, give you a minimal explanation and hope it works.” Inside the studio, respondents indicated “solo crew production” through automated systems was common.
While the survey and interviews were not meant to be representative of everyone working in local TV news, Higgins-Dobney concludes that the responses paint “a picture of how much those covering the largest cities in the United States are juggling an ever-growing load of job responsibilities while providing relevant information to the communities they serve while lacking input on the tools they use to do so.”