‘News desert’ problem puts small communities at greater risk

Areas with limited local coverage are more likely to have lower voter turnout

DURHAM — A new study from Duke University says “news deserts” are a widespread problem in communities both across the state and the nation.

Defining “news deserts” as communities where local news and information is limited or nonexistent, researchers analyzed more than 16,000 news stories, gathered over seven days, across 100 U.S. communities not situated in major media markets. They found 20 communities where local news outlets contained not a single local news story.

“When you have local government, local school board, institutions of that type, those tend not to be covered,” said Philip Napoli, a professor at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy and lead author of the study, in an interview on WPTF. “Their activities tend not to be covered by the larger metropolitan news outlets that might serve the broader area, so it’s these local news outlets that we know really are essential to making sure that those local institutions get covered.”

The study used U.S. Census data to identify 493 communities with 20,000 to 300,000 residents and randomly selected 100 of them to analyze. The analysis included English and non-English speaking media outlets.

“When the consumption of local news declines, participation in local elections declines,” said Napoli. “Various forms of civic engagement can decline, and then there has been concerns that it creates an environment that is more conducive to government corruption, or increases in government spending, less efficiency in government.”

Napoli is affiliated with the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy, and said that he personally would like to see more public financial support for journalism, holding up the public broadcasting model as an example. The Public Broadcasting Act was signed in 1967 by President Lyndon B Johnson as an outlet for news and entertainment that was isolated from commercial pressure on programming. National Public Radio and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting are funded by almost half a billion dollars in taxpayer money a year, plus corporate partnerships.

“We’ve been slow to accept the fact that the economic model for journalism has been broken due to various technological changes,” said Napoli.

However, critics of the concept in the past have said that that news outlets by their nature should remain financially independent watchdogs.

“That isn’t to say its not a genuine concern, but I think at this point it might be the lesser of two evils, given the state that commercial journalism is finding itself in,” he added.

Researchers found that other factors contributing to a less-robust local news market were that a high rate of Spanish-speaking residents led to a small local news presence, and the closer a small community is to a large media market, the less their local government was covered.