Newspapers and polarization

A communications professor at Texas A&M University wanted to find out about the effects of changes to the newspaper industry on our nation’s politics, so she did some research, which has been published in the Journal of Communication.

If you have noticed what seems like a sharp increase in political polarization in the past few years, you are not imagining things. And, as Johanna Dunaway, and some colleagues at Colorado State and Louisiana State universities, found out, that polarization happened during a period of steady decrease in the number of local newspapers and journalists across the country.

According to the report, fewer local newspapers and “watchdog” journalists means less opportunity to get information about local politicians and governments. Those without a local newspaper to read turn to national news sources, some of which try less strenuously to avoid taking one political side or another. Their feelings about national political figures, then, tend to trickle down to local politicians of the same party — again, because they have been given less information about the local folks.

If you think such a change in the way people are able to consume their news means little in the big picture, consider this, from the report: In 1992, 37 percent of states with Senate races elected a senator from a different party than the presidential candidate that state supported. In 2016 — for the first time in 100 years — not a single state displayed such a division.

“Split ticket” voting is becoming a thing of the past in regions the report labels “news-deprived.” (Yes, having access to national news outlets and social media can still leave one news-deprived.)

Researchers have also found lower voter participation among those news-deprived citizens, particularly in off-year elections (that’s the kind of stuff unscrupulous political officials dream about when it comes time to shove through what would normally be an unpopular ballot measure, for example). Communities without local newspapers — and therefore without the journalists working at those newspapers — see an increase in government spending. Why worry about tossing a few extra bucks the way of your favorite contractor when no one is paying attention anyway, right?

Dunaway even found citizens’ reliance on national news sources changes the way politicians campaign.

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

Of course, Mid-Ohio Valley residents know they can count on the News and Sentinel to keep them informed about local and state officials and issues. They know we will continue to do our best to provide the information they need.

And if you think that’s no big deal, take a look at what is happening in the growing number of communities who do not have a local newspaper to ask their politicians what they are trying to hide — what they hope you won’t find out.

Local newspapers are important, ladies and gentlemen. There are only 7,100 of us left in the entire country. There were nearly 9,000 only 15 years ago. Without us, the politicians and their parties have a much easier time making the electorate serve them, rather than the other way around.

That is not as it should be.

Christina Myer is executive editor of The Parkersburg News and Sentinel. She can be reached via e-mail at cmyer@newsandsentinel.com

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