Americans’ trust in local news remains much higher than in national news, according to a recent poll by Gallup and the Knight Foundation.
But the poll also reveals several areas of concern, especially for a news industry needing public support to survive.
Overall the poll found 44% of Americans trust local news “a great deal” or “quite a lot,” holding steady since a 2019 poll that found 45% trusted local news.
National news fared worse, falling from 31% to 27% last year, and widening the gap between trust in local versus national outlets.
“Compared with other sources of local information, Americans also say local news does the best job of keeping them informed, holding leaders accountable and amplifying stories in their communities versus social media, community-based apps and word-of-mouth,” the Knight Foundation said in its release.
This is important for business reasons, as the struggling industry turns to digital subscriptions to make up for ad revenue that it lost to tech giants. Still, it remains a challenge to convince people to pay for local news when they can get drips and drabs for free online and from broadcasters.
There’s also political value. Knowing that a majority of Americans depend on trusted local news to learn what’s happening in their community helps make the case to Congress that it must act soon to help save the local, free press system. Bills that would temporarily stanch newsroom layoffs, with tax credits, and help outlets negotiate fair compensation from tech giants are languishing.
The poll is based on a survey of 4,221 adults conducted in late 2021.
Such research is helpful to discussions about “the media.”
“When people talk about trust, people ‘don’t trust the media,’ that’s an oversimplification of what’s really two very different types of media, the national and local,” Jim Brady, Knight’s vice president for journalism, told me.
For the industry, it validates the importance of work that can be thankless and low-paying. It also highlights areas where improvement is needed to preserve trust and convince more people to read and subscribe.
While 60% of respondents said local news provides information useful to daily life, only 35% said local news “gets the facts right” and 24% said local news gives adequate attention to all sides of an issue.
That’s better than national news, at least. Only 15% say national outlets provide information useful to daily life, 24% say they get the facts right and 22% say they adequately cover all sides.
Fully 54% of respondents said neither national or local outlets “report the news without bias.” Just 31% said local news is unbiased and 14% said nationals are unbiased.
Perhaps a silver lining is that this shows the high value of local news: People trust and appreciate the service it provides despite imperfections.
The 2019 and 2021 polls span a turbulent period.
Even as some politicians attacked the press for doing its job and holding them accountable, news readership surged as people sought trusted information during the pandemic.
Digital subscriptions grew more than 50% in 2020 and 2021, according to Tim Franklin, senior associate dean at Northwestern University’s Medill journalism school, who cited consultants’ research the school acquired.
Sustaining that momentum won’t be easy, especially as outlets continue cutting costs, and as national politics further seep into local news.
“I think what we’re seeing in general is the nationalization of news,” Franklin, director of Medill’s Local News Initiative, said. “We’re seeing people viewing all news, not just local news, through their own partisan filters and partisan prisms.”
Evidence includes protests at school-board meetings and fights over local mask mandates, he said.
“That’s also leading to more charges of bias in local news and also to what people perceive as factual errors or mistakes in local news,” Franklin said. “I think this is a profound problem for local news outlets.”
Local outlets’ dire business situation compounds the problem. Mistakes increase when there are fewer editors and cutbacks in the editing process.
With fewer reporters, outlets fill space and populate websites with wire stories. National political stories generate some clicks, but that may prove to be a sugar high, jeopardizing local outlets’ higher trust and unique franchise.
“This is also a problem that needs to be addressed because it does have potentially long-term consequences to the credibility and health of a local news outlet,” Franklin said.
Medill’s tracking of reader patterns at 103 local outlets found that original, unique local news is widely read and leads people to retain subscriptions. It also found that national news and opinion contributes to churn and people canceling subscriptions in many, but not all, media markets.
“There has to be a value proposition and that value proposition is original reporting done by local reporters,” he said.
One warning sign is polarization found in the Gallup/Knight poll, with partisans far apart on their trust in news.
Democrats’ trust in local news grew, with 62% saying they trust local news, up from 57% in 2019.
The share of Republicans trusting local news fell to 29%, from 34% in 2019. They held national news in even lower regard, with just 5% trusting national news, down from 9% in 2019.
You’ve got to wonder how they’re getting informed, and what news outlets can do to be trusted by them and more Americans overall.
A start, at least, is having more information about strengths, weaknesses and which “media” people are actually talking about.