Local news hit by broadcast media conglomerate

Local TV news focuses more on national politics and leans more to the right now than in recent years, according to new research. These changes, the document concludes, are not in response to changing viewer tastes, but rather to media ownership itself.

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

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

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

  • Comparing Sinclair-owned stations with non-Sinclair-owned stations, the former devoted more time to national politics than local politics. An average station in the sample weighted its local political coverage at about 12.6 percentage points; Sinclair stations gave about 4 percentage points less weight to local politics than other stations.
  • On the other hand, coverage of national politics at Sinclair-owned stations increased. After acquisition by the conglomerate, these stations saw a 25% increase over the average level of national political coverage.
  • National political coverage saw a shift to the right at Sinclair stations. “Slant scores”, based on the repetition of 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 content changes are therefore supply-driven rather than demand-driven. To further substantiate this point, they analyze viewer reaction to ownership changes. They see a slight decrease in viewership, although the figure is not statistically significant.
  • Looking at specific markets with above-median and below-median vote share for Trump, the researchers found significant declines in viewership for stations acquired by Sinclair in Democratic-leaning areas and slight increases in Republican-leaning areas.
  • These audience shifts have cost Sinclair’s ratings, but the writers say consolidating coverage to focus more on national news could still benefit the conglomerate due to production cost savings.
  • The authors suggest that changes in local television news coverage could affect future elections. For right-wing viewers, this amplifies the already documented echo chamber effect of the media, increasing political polarization. Moreover, since Sinclair’s acquisitions did not produce significant effects on viewer response, the ideological shift could have insidious effects on other viewers. “The vast majority of viewers who watched before the acquisition date continued to watch after, despite the substantial changes in political content,” they write. “For those unchanging viewers, the ideological valence of their information regime shifted to the right after acquisition.”
  • Researchers are also concerned that substituting national coverage for local coverage could adversely affect people’s ability to hold local governments to account.

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

Comments are closed.