Editor’s note: This is an edited version of the opening case by Mount Vernon High School sophomores Avalon Stewart and Taite Kirkpatrick, in a May 15 debate about whether democracy depends on local news. It was part of a forum organized by the League of Women Voters of Skagit County. Eight Mount Vernon debate team members are going to nationals in Phoenix in June.
What’s black, white, and red all over? Well, it’s not your local newspaper, that’s for sure! Depending on where you live, your local paper might not even exist, and if it does, there’s a good chance you’ll never see it.
Since 2005, the U.S. has lost over a quarter of our newspapers. It’s estimated that by 2025, we will lose a third of them. The evolution of news deserts is proving detrimental for our society, which is why we are proud to advocate for the importance of local news today in a thriving democracy.
The term “local news” can be ambiguous to many people because they never hear about it. Local news, in contrast to national news, caters to the current issues affecting regional and local communities. The intention of news shouldn’t be to provide one point of view, but to report with veracity. A thriving democracy is characterized by a collection of viewpoints in reporting, which helps citizens and constituents form an educated opinion and a shared sense of reality.
We stand in firm belief that local news is indeed critical for a democracy. We will show this to you by showing first, that local journalism is fundamental to prevent polarization; second, it discourages corruption; and third, it is a tool that can be used to fight widespread misinformation.
First, we can see from multiple recent events that polarization rises in a world without local news. Rowland Thompson, executive director of the Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington, described how when people read about national politics, they are more likely to take increasingly partisan perspectives.
In 2021, the Brookings Institute explained what happens in the absence of local news: people turn to the internet. The rise of social media as a primary source of news has fueled the fire of extreme polarization. Moreover, even if people don’t turn to social media, and instead exclusively focus on national news, the results can still prove detrimental to our democracy.
Additionally, studies have proven that national news directly alters the way we think about politics. In July 2019, the editor of The Desert Sun newspaper in California tested this by deciding to drop all coverage of national politics just from the paper’s opinion page. Researchers examined how feelings about political parties compared in Palm Springs to a neighboring town with no change in its newspaper, and they found that polarization substantially slowed.
The lesson is clear: local news coverage connects people, even if they have disagreements and even if the community-level issues are contentious. In the words of Joshua Darr, author of a 2021 book about local news deserts, “when people read news about their neighborhoods, schools and municipal services, they think like locals. When they read about national political conflict, they think like partisans.”
Second, local news is vital to fight corruption. The reason for this is simple: more specific information is directly correlated with a civically aware and active public.
For example, recently in Mount Vernon, there’s been massive discourse surrounding funding decisions made by our school district. Many people feel like the school board’s decisions are an unwanted surprise, or that the decision-making process for what’s funded and what is cut isn’t transparent — and those people aren’t wrong.
The funding challenges faced by Mount Vernon School District today can be separated into two concerns: Are funds being managed properly? And why isn’t the public being informed about key decisions in our school district? The answer: We live in a news desert and we are seeing the repercussions of that play out around us.
Additionally, a study by University of Illinois and University of Notre Dame researchers found that when local news declines, a city’s borrowing costs increase. It found that local news sources are a primary source of accountability for governments.
What this shows us is clear: in a world without local news, there is no watchdog to hold local governments accountable. The local news protects and informs the public in order to keep democracy alive.
Third, local journalism is vital to fight the spread of misinformation. Once again, in the absence of local journalism, people are forced to turn to untrustworthy sources. The risks of this are twofold: there are social media based misinformation, and “pink-slime” news sites — sites so unreliable, they’re named after fake beef. Both present a risk to our democracy by spreading misinformation and undermining any possibility of a shared sense of reality by the public.
We need to examine social media. According to a 2018 study published in Science, false news is about 70% more likely to be retweeted than the truth.
We can see that more and more people are relying on mostly or only social media to get their news, which just perpetuates the spread of false information. Those who depend on social media are also more likely than other news consumers to be exposed to made-up news. It’s important to recognize that this increase of social media news has happened in tandem with news deserts. When people are desperate for information, have no better sources, and aren’t civically involved, they are less likely to fact check.
In the end, when we have an absence of local journalism, we face a reality of sensationalist misinformation. In the absence of local journalism, in a world of news deserts, we face a world of corruption and partisanship. In the absence of local journalism, democracy declines and eventually dies.
The opinions expressed in reader comments are those of the author only and do not reflect the opinions of The Seattle Times.