Local Newspaper Closures Polarize Voters, Choke Political Progress

Residents are less informed, less engaged in their communities and less influential with their legislators in cities where polarized national news sources are replacing shuttered local newspapers.
23-Jan-2019 10:05 AM EST, by Texas A&M University

Newswise — As local newspapers shutter across the country, the residents residing in those counties without sources of local news are forced to rely more heavily on national media outlets that report political news primarily through the lens of the perennial two-party political conflict.

A study that was published in the Journal of Communication reveals that these communities are becoming increasingly polarized politically, which has broad implications for both voters and legislators.

“Residents of cities without sources of local news are losing their ability to hold their political representatives accountable in ways that encourage ethical and effective representation,” said Johanna Dunaway, professor of communication in the College of Liberal Arts at Texas A&M. “And the more obvious implications of newspaper closures are that residents are becoming less informed about the issues that affect them most and less engaged with local government.”

With Joshua Darr, professor of communication at Louisiana State University, and Matthew Hitt, professor of political science at Colorado State University, Dunaway conducted the study that finds local newspaper closures are helping to polarize voters by contributing to increases in straight-ticket, party-line voting in those counties where they shuttered. Their study, “Newspaper Closures Polarize Voting Behavior,” also explores the implications of those findings.

Evidence of increasing political polarization of the public is shown by this and other studies, and one contributing factor is that voters without local news options are more likely than usual to vote on the basis of party identification alone. Concurrently, the void left by defunct local newspapers creates opportunities for political parties to employ tactics that help replace objective sources of information with their highly polarized perspectives. 

Are the days of crossing party lines at the local level over?

Historically, voters have recognized that many local issues fall outside political party ideology, and they have crossed party lines in local elections when their legislators were achieving positive results for their communities. The legislators cultivated this personal vote by granting interviews and sending press releases to their local newspapers to inform their constituents of their achievements. They made their re-election appeals and claims of credit in their local media markets, and their local reporters held them accountable by covering how well they served their districts, Dunaway said. 

Without local newspapers, communities lose the venue where legislators cultivate the personal vote and journalists hold public servants accountable in ways that encourage good representation. Residents of these communities are forced to rely more on national news outlets that only have the resources, at best, to comprehensively cover national governmental institutions and their leadership.

National coverage of other members of the U.S. Congress typically is limited to occasions when they behave as mavericks, engage in scandalous behavior, say something outrageous or become the targets of outrageous accusations, Dunaway said. The politicians at the state and local levels generally do not appear on the radars of national news outlets at all.

Voters without local newspapers are less influential with their legislators

Catering to the national market, national media outlets cover legislative leaders in terms of whether they support or oppose their respective political party ideologies. So, as national media dominance increases, and with it, political polarization, legislators have more incentive to respond to the needs and preferences of their political parties than to those of their districts, leaving their constituents to pay the price when those interests are in opposition.

And the reality is that these legislators already often consider how national media will portray their actions and responses more than they consider how their constituents will receive them. Therefore, residents of counties without sources of local news are losing influence with their legislators because of the increasing political polarization, likely brought about, at least in part, by growing national media influences.

Growing political polarization diminishes effectiveness of legislators

Political polarization also hampers the ability of legislators to compromise, which encourages legislative gridlock and makes achievements of any kind, whether for political parties or districts, more unobtainable, which is the scenario currently playing out in Congress. The legislators shift their focus away from the common ground found in regional needs and become more beholden to the polarized national agenda, which diminishes their effectiveness as representatives.

“Replacing local media with national alternatives and the resulting increase in political polarization has broad implications for everyone,” Dunaway said. “If the information we get about politics is reduced to national party politics, the local issues that affect us most will be neglected by voters and politicians alike.”

Dunaway and the other researchers examined split-ticket voting in statistically similar counties as an indicator of either adherence to or departure from hardline political party ideology. They found a 1.9 percent drop in split-ticket voting in presidential and senatorial elections in counties where local newspapers closed. In elections research, where fluctuations of 1 percent are considered substantial, this difference is dramatic.

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