In a season of New Year’s resolutions, many of us are thinking a lot about eating better in 2019. But as the arrival of January brings renewed attention on nutritional diets, citizens might do well to think about their media diets, too.
All of this come to mind because of some new research by an LSU scholar concluding that when voters reduce their consumption of local news and depend more on national news instead, their voting patterns become more partisan.
Joshua Darr, an assistant professor at LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication, teamed with Matthew Hit of Colorado State University and Johanna Dunaway of Texas A&M to study split-ticket voting, which happens when voters cast their ballots for candidates in one party for one office and for a candidate hailing from a different party for another office. It’s a practice that suggests a voter is driven less by partisan feeling in selecting a candidate. The researchers found that split-ticket voting in counties that had lost their local newspaper dropped by 1.9 percent, which might seem a small decline but is considered significant in elections research, where a difference of even 1 percent can be meaningful.
“Where there’s less local media, there’s going to either be less information on the candidates for office or people are going to use a different kind of media when the local source goes away, and that tends to be more loaded with partisan messaging,” Darr said.
The research doesn’t suggest that all national media outlets are partisan. But in an increasingly segmented media landscape, particularly on cable news, where networks such as Fox News and MSNBC play to a particular political base, getting objective information on a candidate can be more challenging.
When local news sources disappear, voters “are forced to fall back on something easy, which is party, rather than something hard, which is knowing lots of facts about the candidates they’re voting on,” Darr said. “Consuming local news and supporting local news really does matter, and that’s what the research shows,” he added. “The very existence of local papers is what shields people from turning to more partisan sources that they might otherwise read.”
Of course we welcome any research that affirms the value of local newspapers, which feature national content in their news and commentary pages but also provide readers with reports on community issues where party lines can seem less sharp.
When it comes to filling a pothole or improving drainage, for example, there’s usually not a distinctly Republican or Democratic way to get the job done.
Any healthy diet needs to include a variety of sources. Darr is right to remind us that when it comes to being well-informed, local newspapers should be part of the mix.