Study: Death of newspapers contributing to political polarization

by WorldTribune Staff, February 1, 2019

Since 2004, some 1,800 local newspapers have shut down. With cable news and social media filling the void, the United States has become a much more politically polarized nation, a study said.

Fewer local newspapers mean fewer opportunities for citizens to find out about local politicians. As a result, citizens are more likely to turn to national news sources and apply their feelings about national politics to people running for the town council or state legislature, according to research published in the Journal of Communication.

Researchers compared voting data from 66 communities where newspapers have closed in the past two decades to 77 areas where local newspapers continue to operate, said Johanna Dunaway, a communications professor at Texas A&M University, who conducted the research with colleagues from Colorado State and Louisiana State universities.

“We have this loss of engagement at the local level,” Dunaway said.

There is now much less “split ticket” voting, or people whose ballot includes votes for people of different parties, Dunaway said.

In 1992, 37 percent of states with Senate races elected a senator from a different party than the presidential candidate the state supported. In 2016, for the first time in a century, no state did that, the study found.

“The voting behavior was more polarized, less likely to include split ticket voting, if a newspaper had died in the community,” Dunaway said.

Dunaway said those in communities without newspapers are more likely to be influenced in local voting by national politics. Those who like Republicans such as President Donald Trump, for example, will likely vote Republican lower on the ballot.

The diminished news sources also alter politicians’ strategies, Dunaway said.

“They have to rely on party ‘brand names’ and are less about ‘how I can do best for my district,’ ” she said.

Some 1,800 newspapers have shuttered since 2004, the vast majority of them community weeklies, said Penelope Muse Abernathy, a University of North Carolina professor who studies the contraction. Additionally, many of the larger daily newspapers that have remained open have much smaller staffs that are unable to offer the breadth of coverage they once did. About 7,100 newspapers remain.

Among the other findings is less voter participation among news-deprived citizens in “off-year” elections where local offices are decided, Abernathy said. Another study suggested a link to increased government spending in communities where “watchdog” journalists have disappeared, she said.

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