Study: Decline in local journalism increases political polarization

Study: Decline in local journalism increases political polarization
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The death of local newspapers increases political polarization and straight-ticket voting, according to the authors of a new study from researchers at MIT, Yale and French university Sciences Po.

As national news outlets win out over local papers, the study found, people view politics through a national lens and split-ticket voting tends to decline.

“An often-unexplored consequence of the disappearance of local news is the fact that local politics will become increasingly determined by national matters,” said Charles Angelucci, one of the study's coauthors.

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In turn, voters become more polarized, Angelucci argues, as political discourse is driven less by what happens locally.

“In the past people may have voted for different presidential candidates but for the same local officials. This created some degree of commonality,” he said.

“These days, it is very likely that if two persons disagree about their preferred presidential candidate they also disagree about their preferred local politician. More straight ticket voting is yet another manifestation of greater polarization,” Angelucci added.

The study, authored by Angelucci from MIT, Julia Cage from Sciences Po Paris, and Michael Sinkinson from Yale, comes as the decline in local journalism has accelerated.

A separate study released by the Pew Research Center on Friday found that one-third of large-circulation U.S. newspapers laid off staff last year.

And since 2004, the U.S. has lost 2,100 publications, or one-fourth of its newspapers, according to a 2020 report from the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at the University of North Carolina.

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Angelucci’s study examined how the growth of TV affected finances and content at 1,963 daily newspapers from 1944 to 1964 and matched those results against county-level election data on House, Senate and presidential races from roughly the same time.

The era was ideal for studying the decline in local news, the authors wrote, because TV had technical limitations, forcing it to report national news, while newspapers provided both local and national content.

Prior to the advent of TV, party affiliation was less important for local politicians than community issues or their personal reputations, the study said. As a result, people often voted for one party locally and another nationally.

“The extent to which national matters influenced local politics was low” the study said. “Split-ticket voting was relatively common and, if anything, growing.”

But as TV’s popularity grew, local papers experienced financial pressure and produced less content. The number of stories published in local papers decreased by 6.6 percent, the study said, and that decline was in turn “driven mainly by a 10.1% drop in original local news stories.”

As a result, voters increasingly saw elections as referendums on national debates and fewer people split their tickets between two parties.

The study’s findings, the authors wrote, “have implications for the modern media landscape.”

“New media outlets [internet and cable news] have affected both how information is produced and consumed and have weakened the traditional economic model of local print media,” the study said.

The resulting decline in the production and consumption of local news could have far-reaching political and social consequences, which we are only beginning to fully appreciate.”