Nova Scotia·Why News Matters

'News poverty' can harm democracy and communities, researcher finds

News that another local paper or TV news show is cutting back or closing down may lead to a resigned shrug from the general population.

'We live in a time when there is more media than ever, but less local news,' says April Lindgren

Reporters act as community watchdogs, says April Lindgren. (Shutterstock/wellphoto)

News that another local paper or TV news show is cutting back or closing down may lead to a resigned shrug from the general population.

But that's a big mistake, says April Lindgren, associate professor in Ryerson University's School of Journalism and academic director of the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre. She heads the Local News Research Project.

"We have a tendency to say, well who cares? The local paper wasn't very good, or the local TV station just covered fluffy events," she says.

"But I think it's important to think of news being at least a mirror of the community and we can all gaze into that mirror to see what's going on."

There's been plenty of bad news in the Canadian news business recently. Postmedia laid off 90 journalists last month, and merged newspapers in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton and Ottawa.

Closer to home, 61 newsroom staff at The Chronicle Herald are walking the picket line. Traditional newsrooms across the country have been laying off journalists.

'News poverty'

Lindgren is looking at questions of local journalism more deeply, studying patterns of "news poverty" — areas that don't receive good coverage.

Questions include: are rural areas covered less than urban? How does an area's economic and ethnic makeup affect coverage? How does news poverty affect election turnout and results?

At their most noble, journalists act as a "watchdog on power," she says. But even when they fall short, Lindgren says her research shows it's important that they just watch.

"The very presence of local media watching, research seems to suggest, acts as a check on political shenanigans," she says.

If a community doesn't have a local newspaper or station, it usually means little to no coverage of things such as council meetings. Even if you don't agree with how a debate is covered, Lindgren says there's great value in the mere fact it is covered.

"Just the fact that there's somebody at the city council writing a story about what happened informs citizens and at least lets them know what's on the agenda in their community."

If the local elite are debating a project or an issue, coverage lets citizens know what people disagree on. Newspapers can also offer a platform for opinion pieces laying out the case for both sides.

More media, but less local

Lindgren says studies have shown healthy local news coverage can increase civic engagement and drive up voting numbers.

We live in a time when there is more media than ever, but less local news.- April Lindgren

Not having reporters who live in certain communities makes it more likely for certain areas to be stigmatized, Lindgren says. It affects how we see other racial or ethnic minority groups — especially for people who encounter them in no other context.

She says Facebook can make it seem like you are getting great news coverage, but it's an illusion. 

"We live in a time when there is more media than ever, but less local news. You walk over to your computer and the world is there for you to discover. But if you want to find out what's going on down the street, there aren't that many news organizations that are producing verified, factual news," she says.

How local news builds communities

Lindgren says research also shows healthy community news coverage can build better communities. "One thing that we don't think about that much is the role local news plays in community integration. What I mean by that is it helps tie communities together by in a sense creating a shared experience."

If a small group turns out on a rainy night to hear a politician speak, the local media can megaphone that to an audience of thousands. By covering festivals, visits, and public meetings, it builds a collective identity and knowledge base.

"We meet people we might not ever get to meet and go places in our community that we might not ever get to go to. We can share in that collective experience," she says. 

She monitors different attempts to solve the problem of shrinking revenue and shrinking newspapers. In Sweden, some local papers are subsidized by the state. Some are trying micro-payments, setting up as charitable foundations or turning to philanthropists.​


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