Accuracy in Media

Politico (full disclosure, my former employer) released an investigation about how “Trump thrives in areas that lack traditional news outlets,” implying that a weak local press meant citizens were less engaged and this weaker engagement correlated with support for President Trump during the 2016 election.

However, Joshua Benton with Harvard University’s NiemanLab pointed out the flawed methodology in Politico’s approach:

The study’s definition of a “news desert” is awfully strained.“News desert” is a term without a universally agreed-upon definition — but there are a number of problems with the one Politico uses.

First, to the extent there’s been any consensus, it’s generally that a news desert is a place with no local news outlets at all. (CJR: communities “with no daily local news outlet at all”; UNC: communities that “lose their local newspapers.”) Others go with something looser like “places where it is difficult to access daily, local news and information” or even “a community overlooked, if not entirely ignored, by the media.”

But all of these definitions are about news supply. Politico’s definition is all about news demand — what percentage of people in a county subscribe to a newspaper. The demand side of news is a real problem! But low audience demand doesn’t make a place a “news desert.”

The study also seems to arbitrarily decide that the bottom 10 percent of American counties in newspaper circ are by definition “news deserts.” There’s no particular defense offered of that cutoff. And again, there’s no evidence offered that these places are really “deserts.”

Politico may be surprised to learn that local TV and radio stations exist. Local newspapers are a minority interest just about everywhere in America.

Pew data from 2016 found that print newspapers were a distant fourth in how Americans got their news (57 percent for TV, 38 percent for online, 25 percent for radio, and 20 percent for print newspapers). It trails TV badly in every age group.

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