As local news outlets, what is our role in keeping our communities informed about national events? And how do attitudes toward national coverage affect people’s relationships with *our* journalism?
We’ve gotten the message from our partner journalists over the last few years that audiences are confused about who’s responsible for content from wire services or other partners. They tell us that people expect them to independently fact-check wire stories, that their comments sections are full of complaints about national coverage and that they have decreasing staff resources to pay attention to those stories.
So, let’s talk about it.
As we kick off our new initiative, A Road to Pluralism, along with our Pluralism Network, we’re going to dig into a series of challenging questions that we think are crucial for local journalists to address. We’ll talk about five topics that we believe are contributing to the perception that local news is part of the problem in a polarized society, rather than a trusted resource across the political spectrum.
(In this video of a launch event last week, hear us talk about the five themes and what we learned in recent research with the Center for Media Engagement.)
First up: the role of national coverage provided by wire services. It’s this week’s theme, and we invite you to join us on Thursday for an informal conversation about it. Register here. Find more details about this and other upcoming events at the bottom of the post.
It’s worth noting that this topic does not just apply to political news. People perceive bias and polarization in coverage of things like health, pop culture, schools and sports.
First, some research
We know that trust is higher in local news outlets than in national news outlets. We also know that local news plays a vital role in civic life.
One recent research experiment also showed that a local newspaper could slow polarization by focusing on local writers on opinion pages.
“When a local newspaper in California dropped national politics from its opinion page, the resulting space filled with local writers and issues. We use a pre-registered analysis plan to show that after this quasi-experiment, politically engaged people did not feel as far apart from members of the opposing party, compared to those in a similar community whose newspaper did not change. While it may not cure all of the imbalances and inequities in opinion journalism, an opinion page that ignores national politics could help local newspapers push back against political polarization.”
And Joshua Darr, one of the researchers, shared this advice with the American Press Institute:
“The comparative advantage of local news outlets is their focus on the community. People are drawn to national politics and may even choose to read about it over local news if given the choice. But newspapers should try to resist the temptation to cater too much to this preference. The benefits, if any, are likely short term, and possibly at the cost of longer-term problems that hasten the demise of local news.”
That research sure has us wanting to know more. Like … would the same be true in other newsrooms? And would it be true for news coverage, not just opinion?
What we’ve heard from local journalists
Here’s a collection of observations from our newsroom partners and other journalists who’ve gotten in touch with us on the topic of national news and wire services.
- Readers don’t understand why we don’t cover national stories ourselves. They don’t understand our processes and limited resources.
- We’re a pretty small paper, we don’t have room for a lot of wire content. Our readers think that the AP is ignoring the border crisis because we don’t have room for a story most days. Maybe we should make room for those more consistently.
- Our readers do not understand that we cannot run Fox News content. They want to know why we always run Associated Press or Washington Post stories.
- A wire story might say “Trump crowed” about something, rather than just that he said it. We have to think how that will be perceived by people. If people see those kinds of words, they might reject the whole story and not accept the facts of the story. Stories perceived as biased drive people to news sites that align with their views, where they’re going to get more misinformation.
- One reader was adamant that there is rarely a national news story that doesn’t seem to have an agenda or bias — something she perceived as untrue or unfair. She thinks the national media has cheerleading approach to Biden compared to their treatment of Trump.
- We get questions from readers about why we don’t have a story about something that happened nationally. I’ll ask the wire service about it, and they’ll say it’s not news, or it’s unconfirmed. As a journalist, I understand that. But I also know that our readers perceive bias in the decision not to cover something. And I’m not sure how to address that.
- One reader kept reiterating that he doesn’t want to be told what to think or feel. He didn’t see that in local coverage but talked a lot about national coverage.
- We delegated an editor on election night to take adverbs and adjectives out of AP stories and make them as straightforward as possible.
- We don’t have a wire editor. No one in our newsroom is responsible for it. No one in house does the print paper. I send a budget for what’s local from our newsroom, and the designer and wire editor from a regional hub just fill it in. But readers are judging the fairness of our product based on those choices.
- We used to have an all-local front page. But with staffing changes, no way we could do that now. But if that’s the first thing people see, our overall product seems more polarized.
- Our strategy has been to focus on what our local journalists are doing in the community every day. And they say yea, that’s great, but your front page story is a story that makes Donald Trump look bad or lumps all conservatives into extreme views. Should we get rid of national coverage? I think it’s worth asking the question.
- Syndicated content takes up a lot of space, but it is an afterthought in the newsroom. We pride ourselves on local coverage. But if people rely on us for national news we need to spend more time discussing it or maybe put some additional guidelines in place. It is a tiny part of my job, but it is a big part of what people look to us for. It should take more attention in the newsroom than it does now.
- National opinion content drives a lot of perceptions of national news. That brings two challenges: Can people tell it’s national, not from our staff? And can they tell it’s opinion?
Questions we’re ready to see local newsrooms ask
With our new Pluralism Network, we’re committed to working with newsrooms to find solutions to these complex problems. On the topic of including national news in local news products, here are some questions we’re ready to ask.
What strategies are effective in helping audiences understand our wire choices?
How can we explain:
- What sources we subscribe to for wire news
- Why those are the sources or services we choose and why we trust them (who their staff is, where they’re located, their ethics policies, their commitment to accuracy, etc.)
- How the process works (what we pay for, what kinds of content we have access to)
- What topics we turn to the wire for (including and in addition to national politics)
- Who on our staff selects which stories to include and what their criteria are
- How we solicit feedback on those stories, and what we do with it
What strategies are effective in changing perceptions of the local news product?
- How we describe our local values and priorities
- How we explain what our local staff is assigned to cover, and what we don’t cover
- How much national news coverage we’re publishing, and why
- How much national opinion coverage we’re publishing, and why
- How much attention we give that national coverage in print and on air
- How much attention we give that national coverage on social media platforms
- How diminished staffing might have increased the amount of national coverage we’re including
What do newsrooms wish were different about the wire coverage available to them?
- Are we collecting feedback about wire coverage?
- Are we sharing that feedback with the creators of that content? If so, is it incorporated into their work?
- Are our concerns specific to one wire service or national team, or do they represent challenges with national news overall?
- Are we consistent with how we edit national coverage, or does it depend on who’s on duty?
- How could we know more about what isn’t getting covered and why, so we could explain that to our audience?
What would you add to the list? What ideas do you have for how to address these issues?
We invite you to join us on Thursday, Aug. 26, for an informal conversation about it. Register here. During this event you can bring your own challenges and ideas, and hear from three of our partner journalists:
- Alison Gerber, editor and director of content at the Chattanooga Times Free Press
- Peter Huoppi, director of multimedia at The Day
- Mark Rosenberg, reporter at the Victoria Advocate
Are you ready to dive into any of these questions? We’d love to pair you with other newsrooms that have the same challenges and see if together, we can identify solutions. Apply for the Pluralism Network here.
Over the next several weeks, we’ll be exploring several themes on our Road to Pluralism. We’ll write about one each week and also host a conversation to hear from partner journalists and brainstorm steps we can take to address them. Register for the event series here, and come to whichever of them are relevant to your work.
The conversations will take place on the following days and focus on the following themes:
- Aug. 26: The value and challenges of local and national news
- Sept. 2: Generalizations and polarization
- Sept. 9: Perceptions of stories’ fairness
- Sept. 16: Bias in the newsroom
- Sept. 30: Outreach and listening
Ideas for us? Questions? Get in touch anytime at info@TrustingNews.org.
Update: Highlights from our conversation on wire and national coverage
Here are a few things we’re eager to dive into based on what we heard. If they’re interesting to you, please let us know.
In terms of how national content is written and produced:
- How are/should/can local newsrooms edit wire copy? Add labels or explainers? Add context to back up claims or statements made in stories that might not be immediately accepted? Take out adjectives or adverbs, or make other language more straightforward? Remove or add information based on local sensitivities and contexts?
- Could wire services send reporter bio information, to demonstrate the credibility of the reporting?
- Could wire services send taglines with email addresses for feedback, to help make it clear who is responsible for the coverage?
In terms of how local news orgs present wire content:
- How can news orgs make it more clear which content they produce and which they don’t?
- How can they explain which wire services they subscribe to and why?
- How can they explain what factors into which wire stories get selected?
- Should local news orgs consider running less wire copy — or none — in their paper? In their newscast? On their website? On their social media feeds? What value does it add in each environment?
We welcome your ideas and additions to the list! And please do apply to join us in the Pluralism Network if you’re able to help us learn about even just one specific question or issues.
Trusting News is designed to demystify the issue of trust in journalism. We research how people decide what news is credible, then turn that knowledge into actionable strategies for journalists. We’re co-hosted by the Reynolds Journalism Institute and the American Press Institute. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook. Subscribe to our Trust Tips newsletter. Read more about our work at TrustingNews.org.