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Without Local News, Is Justice Possible?

The Federal Communications Commission just released a substantial report on the state of media communications in the United States. You can take a gander at the full report in .pdf, if you feel so inclined. There’s a lot to tease apart in this extremely lengthy document, but The Consumerist highlighted an issue of particular news to me; the state of local news coverage in the new media age.

Good local news coverage is absolutely critical for citizens. Without media reportage on topics of local interest, citizens may not be aware of things they critically need to know about. Not everyone has the time to go digging for dirt, or has the research skills to know where to start. People rely on radio, television, and newspapers for information about local events, and the FCC points out that people television in particular plays a critical role in the media consumption habits of many people in the US, with 78% of survey respondents reporting that they get their news from the television.

In the United States, we live in an era when access to global news is a fingertip away, although the quality of that reporting is variable, and the media tends to be highly selective about what it covers; this week, for example, the US media is obsessed with some congressman’s dick, but there was actually a major election in Peru that could have important policy implications for the United States, in addition to being of inherent interest. While the media salivates over Sarah Palin, the Committee to Protect Journalists releases a critical report on rape and sexual assault in the journalism profession worldwide. On the national and international level, all of these topics are important.

But so is local news. Citizens need to know what is happening in their communities. It is local reporters who uncover corruption, who reveal wasteful government spending, who get the truth on proposed developments, who profile candidates for public office to make readers aware. It is local reporters who may highlight fatal spending cuts, draw attention to the most disadvantaged members of the community, who shame businesses for polluting or dumping garbage or donating to harmful political organisations. Likewise, local reporters also highlight trends towards progress in their communities, like resolutions to extend anti-discrimination protections to transgender employees.

Without that initial local reporting, a story cannot break on a larger media platform. If local reporters in Arizona hadn’t aggressively pursued stories on Joe Arpaio, for example, it is unlikely that the national media would have picked up the issue. Someone, somewhere, had to start the chain of dominoes that led to the exposure of the corruption, abuse, and racism under his tenure in the sheriff’s office. Citizen journalists, let alone Arpaio’s victims, alone lacked the clout to force Arpaio into the public eye; traditional media was necessary to push it to the point of critical mass.

The FCC report highlights a 2009 study from the University of Michigan that discussed the dearth of local news coverage across the media, in television, radio, and newspapers. Another study in Los Angeles in 2009 had local issues occupying an average one minute and 16 seconds out of half hour broadcasts. There’s a local of local news of importance in Los Angeles. I doubt even a speedreading broadcaster could get to it all in just over a minute. Furthermore, it’s not just that local news is not covered very thoroughly, it’s also that the depth of the reporting is poor, the FCC argues, with a shift away from investigative journalism at many news outlets.

Investigative journalism can be expensive. Journalists like those involved in uncovering the Bell scandal in Southern California, for which the Los Angeles Times won a number of awards, need to sink substantial time, energy, and money into their reporting. And they may well come up empty, or end up with a slew of unusable information. Committing to investigative journalism is an increasingly dicey proposition for some media outlets, which is why it is on the decline nationwide when it should be the cornerstone of all reporting. It is through investigative journalism that we find out what is happening in the dark corners of our society, whether it’s Mother Jones on the BP spill or The Guardian exposing abuses in long term care facilities. We need more ProPublicas, not fewer.

Advertisers also play a critical role in media access:

…but financial pressures have often broken down the [ad-edit] wall, according to Stacey Woelfel, who chaired the RTDNA Ethics Committee for seven years and is now news director at KOMU-TV in central Missouri. “Pay-for-play is still an issue,” he says. “It’s the station looking for a dollar here or there where they did not have to worry about it before. What do they have to offer? Well…airtime.

As soon as advertising concerns start to dictate the nature of coverage, you have a significant problem. There’s a reason that the ed-edit wall has been traditionally maintained at journalistic outlets: because journalists need to focus on the integrity of their reporting, not on what will please advertisers. Journalists may, on occasion, need to report on the nefarious doings of their own advertisers without fear of reprisal. The line between journalism and advertising is getting increasingly blurry as advertisers exert editorial and authorial control, and this means that viewers, readers, and listeners may not be aware of the provenance of the stories they encounter, which is extremely dangerous.

Local news is not terribly beneficial when it’s really just a shill for a locally-based company. Nor is it helpful when the news may be outsourced, or the result of collaboration between competing news outlets, the FCC points out. When your news only comes from one source, it is inevitably slanted, and when you are not aware that the same kinds of news items are being aired on multiple platforms, you may mistakenly believe that you are getting diverse coverage when there’s really only one man behind the curtain. How helpful is it to read multiple stories on the same local event when they’re all the result of the same investigation and the same collaborative team, relying on the same sources?

The local reporting gap is yawning and the FCC worries that it may not be readily filled. The most interesting part of the report is the brief discussion on new media, which I wish had been expanded, because it brought up some important issues about the tensions between traditional and new media, and the ways that they can work together:

The next step would seem to be embracing a fairly obvious idea: the old and new media improve each other’s effectiveness. Crowds can pore through document dumps and reporters can find the source within the agency to describe the significance or reveal which documents were withheld. Citizens can offer Twitter updates from a scene, and reporters can look for patterns and determine which tweets might be self-serving or fraudulent. Traditional media may come up with a scoop, and new media can get it disseminated quickly and inexpensively; new media, may come up with a scoop, and traditional media can cast the information more broadly.

This is important. New media is an important source for journalists and we see this increasingly as stories break on Twitter first and news outlets rush to catch up, as journalists turn to their Twitter contacts as sources and even use Tweets in their reports; I’m turning to new media and grassroots activists for reports on the Greek protests right now, for example, because the issue simply isn’t being covered in the traditional media. The way to bridge the gap in local reporting lies in a cooperative effort between old and new media to get information out there and get it where it needs to go.

Historically, local news of most relevance to the most marginalised citizens tends to take the back burner. We rely on investigative journalism to highlight injustice and inequality not just worldwide, but in our own communities. Without this reporting, we might not be aware of the rise of yet another ‘crisis pregnancy centre’ or attack on a member of the homeless community. We rely on investigative journalism to highlight the cases that would slip through the cracks, to do more than report on high profile and powerful members of our society.

In the media’s haste to cover yet another day of political shenanigans because it’s fast, cheap, and easy, how many news stories did we miss?


  1. Travis wrote:

    Ooo, I like the idea of “new media and old media improving one another’s effectiveness”. It sounds like a whole new kind of journalism could be born, which is about efficiently combing through publicly contributed sources (and maybe getting in good with leakers and hacktivists) and spotting trends and stories as they coalesce. Sounds exciting.

    Then again, journalism could experience the same problem the intelligence community continues to suffer when you replace “pavement pounding” with electronic sources–the information glut becomes too much to comb through. A good contact can give information for years, but that contact must be found, developed, and maintained during that time. Electronic sources and easier and cheaper to get, but in a truly complex story, it can be hard to piece together context and meaning.

    Probably somewhere between the two would be a good place for the journalists of the 21st Century to find their niche.

    Thursday, June 9, 2011 at 1:37 pm | Permalink
  2. Mazarine wrote:

    We should all help report the news, that’s true. But right now it seems like a lot of people who use twitter in the US for example are more privileged. And should the privileged get more news coverage of what they care about? How can we make reporting the news a low-income community activity? I sat next to a reporter on an airplane a couple of months ago and he told me he’d like to start a nonprofit where low-income people could get tech training to make youtube mashups to show on TV to report their own news.

    Thursday, June 9, 2011 at 7:22 pm | Permalink
  3. JetGirl wrote:

    As a longtime newspaper reporter, I’m glad this report is looking at these issues. While most people may get their news from tv, tv gets it from newspapers. I can’t tell you how many times I broke a story, only to see a tv reporter leaning against his/her newsvan reading it before doing a standup.
    Newspapers, whether paper or online, must survive. Otherwise, we’re in trouble.

    Thursday, June 9, 2011 at 11:34 pm | Permalink
  4. MadBiker Wolf wrote:

    @Jetgirl, you wouldn’t be biased or anything would you? I’m sure that you’d still champion newpapers even if you weren’t in that very same profession.

    The simple fact is that newpaper reporters are just as lazy as media reporters, but have more space to fill. I strongly doubt that there is a real journalist left in the world. What we have now, in either print or broadcast, are pundits who want to express an opinion instead of facts.

    There is no objectivity in reporting anymore, if there ever was. Yellow-journalism is not only alive and well, it is now the accepted norm.

    Monday, June 13, 2011 at 12:41 pm | Permalink