Local news affected by the audiovisual media conglomerate



Local TV news shows focus more on national politics and lean more to the right than in recent years, according to a new study. These changes, the article concludes, are not in response to the changing tastes of viewers, rather they stem from the ownership of the media themselves.

As local print media wither, local television news remains one of the few sources of community and state level coverage. But even this area is under threat, according to two Emory University researchers who have discovered the drivers of what they call “the long-term decline in local coverage.”

Researchers analyzed local television news broadcasts to measure changes in subject matter and ideological orientation. They surveyed 743 local news stations in the last two-thirds of 2017, a period that coincides with the purchase of 14 new stations by a conservative-leaning conglomerate owner, the Sinclair Media Group. In total, the group has 193 stations in 89 designated market areas.

The researchers compared 7.5 million transcription segments to compare the changes in coverage between stations acquired by Sinclair and other stations operating in those markets. They found:

  • In comparing Sinclair-owned stations to non-Sinclair-owned stations, the former spent more time on national politics than on local politics. An average station in the sample weighted its local political coverage at about 12.6 percentage points; Sinclair stations rated local politics about 4 percentage points less than other stations.
  • On the other hand, national political coverage of Sinclair-owned stations has increased. After the acquisition by the conglomerate, these stations experienced a 25 percent increase over the average level of national political coverage.
  • National politics coverage saw a right turn at Sinclair stations. “Slant scores,” based on repeating ideologically related phrases, increased by about one standard deviation after Sinclair’s acquisition compared to other stations in the same markets.
  • The authors conclude that changes in content are therefore determined by supply rather than demand. To further substantiate this point, they analyze the reaction of viewers to changes in ownership. They see a slight decrease in the number of viewers, although the figure is not statistically significant.
  • Looking at specific markets with above and below the median vote share for Trump, the researchers found a significant drop in viewership for stations Sinclair acquired in Democratic-leaning areas and slight increases in high-growth areas. republican tendency.
  • These audience shifts are costing Sinclair ratings, but the authors say consolidating coverage to focus more on national news could still benefit the conglomerate due to savings in production costs.
  • The authors suggest that changes in local television news coverage could affect future elections. For right-wing viewers, this amplifies the media’s already documented echo chamber effect, increasing political polarization. Additionally, because Sinclair’s acquisitions did not produce significant viewer response effects, the ideological shift could have insidious effects on other viewers. “The vast majority of viewers who watched before the acquisition date continued to watch afterwards, despite the substantial changes in political content,” they write. “For those viewers who do not change, the ideological valence of their news regime shifted to the right after the acquisition.”
  • Researchers also fear that substituting national coverage for local coverage could have detrimental effects on the population’s ability to hold local governments to account.

Photo by Evert F. Baumgardner used under a Creative Commons license.


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