Downsizing local news contributes to crumbling infrastructure

May 26, 2024

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Downsizing local news contributes to crumbling infrastructure

Reading strong local journalism is tied to greater support for funding dams, sewers and other basic infrastructure vital to climate resilience, according to new research.

The study, published this month in the journal Political Behavior, found that reading fictionalized samples of news coverage with specific local details about infrastructure maintenance requirements led to as much as 10% more electoral support for infrastructure spending compared to reading bare-bones reporting. Just a few extra paragraphs of context in the mock news stories not only increased support for spending, but also increased voters’ willingness to hold politicians accountable for infrastructure neglect by voting them out of office.

What the researchers say: “Local news reporting builds public support for infrastructure investments,” the lead author said. “Heat, floods, drought and fire are putting new stress on aging and deteriorating infrastructure, which must be maintained to protect communities against these growing climate risks. Our study shows that investing in facilities that improve our resilience to climate hazards requires investing in the health of local news.”

Private ownership has cut or eliminated local news staff nationwide, reducing original reporting and local political stories while focusing on national news that can be centrally produced and shared in many newspapers within the same ownership structure, the study’s authors noted. They cited research that found 300 to 500 fewer political stories after average staffing cuts, and a Pew Research Center found that 56% of newspaper employment disappeared from 2008-2022. With fewer reporters staffing newsrooms, the depth of reporting on infrastructure declines.

“Local newsroom capacity is critical to democracy,” the researchers explained. “Our study shows that when newsrooms can commit resources to report more information about infrastructure conditions and failure risks, readers notice and are more willing to hold officials accountable for inaction, and more willing to support higher spending.”

The study surveyed more than 3,300 adults. Each read a news-style story about an upcoming election with an incumbent mayor, a mayoral challenger and a property tax increase averaging $40 annually to fund aging infrastructure. The sample stories described either a local dam or a sewer system.

Control groups read basic, limited-information versions of the articles representing what might be generated with little reporting staff or even AI. Other groups read more complex coverage with a few extra paragraphs: either an investigative version highlighting longstanding flaws and government neglect; a contextual version referring to a similar nearby dam or sewer that failed disastrously; or a combined investigative and contextual version. Study participants then indicated how they would likely vote.

All of the detailed articles increased infrastructure support compared to the control.

“Across the board, we saw more support for infrastructure spending when people read news coverage that provided context about infrastructure neglect and its consequences,” the lead author said. “Empty newsrooms and AI reporting don’t provide communities with the information they need to make investments for their own health and security.”

So, what? Most privately owned news organizations, such as News Corp., are owned, or controlled, by people who are ideologically against government spending be it local, regional or national. Their outlets tend to sow doubts about climate change and fulminate against the steps needed to mitigate against its worst effects (e.g. Fox News and The Australian). The standout exception to all of this is the Washington Post, owned by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos, which manages to be scientifically accurate, local and national.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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