If No One Covers a Local Election, Is It Still a Democracy?

Why reporting on the sewer board is just as important as reporting on Trump.

Nature abhors a vacuum, but sometimes, what rushes in can be worse than the vacuum itself. The largest Democratic PAC, Priorities USA, has announced it will flood communities with content that looks like non-partisan local news—but is actually pro-Democratic Party advertorial. “This should be covered by local news, but local news is dying,” Priorities USA Communication Director Josh Schwerin told VICE News.

This effort is partly a reaction to earlier efforts by Republicans to create local partisan news with neutral-sounding names like The Maine Examiner and the Free Telegraph. Axios has documented other cases of political consultants and activists creating neutral-sounding local news organizations to push their agendas. Meanwhile, Sinclair Broadcasting has tried inject Fox-style audience targeting into local TV news.

The Russians may have tried to distort coverage of our national elections—but when it comes to our local elections, we’re messing it up pretty well on our own.

One of the basic functions of the press is to provide citizens with information on which to base their vote. Yet in thousands of communities around the country, that isn’t happening.

There is much discussion about the deteriorating machinery of elections—voter registration, gerrymandering, campaign finance rules. Those who care about reforming democracy should start paying attention to the collapse of local news.

Studies have long shown that local races—state legislative races, city council, county boards, judgeships—get less coverage than national races. The levels of coverage are shockingly low.

A 2006 University of Wisconsin study revealed that viewers of local news in the Midwest got 2.5 times more information about local elections from paid advertisements than from local news. A 2004 study of 11 media markets by USC Annenberg found that only 8 percent of the 4,333 broadcasts during the month before the election had stories that even mentioned local races.  The new shows featured eight times more coverage on accidental injuries than on local races.

Not surprisingly, average turnout for local elections has long been abysmally low. Of course, local news has gotten far worse since those studies were conducted. Some 1,400 communities have lost their own news sources, according to a detailed study by the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.

Ironically, political coverage often gets more sparse as it gets more local. In those communities, the vacuum is often filled by national cable TV programming. So in those communities, residents can figure out who to vote for president or even governor—but not city council, state assembly, judgeships, county boards, school boards, or local referenda in their own backyards.

The consequences are dire. Numerous studies have shown that less news coverage leads to even lower voter turnout, a less informed electorate, fewer candidates for local office, less civic engagement, and greater polarization.

Meanwhile, statehouse coverage has also dramatically deteriorated. That means that statewide races—judgeships, state referenda, secretaries of state—get less coverage, too.

Much attention—and considerable money—has been focused on reforming democracy through better voting laws, non-partisan gerrymandering and other efforts. These are all worthwhile.

But those efforts miss a piece of the puzzle. You can’t have local democracy without local journalism.  That’s intuitive, and it’s now also proven. For instance, studies have shown that less news coverage leads to lower voting turnout.

Better coverage of local elections and government would certainly create a more informed electorate, but it also could help with another problem of democracy—polarization. Many local issues don’t follow normal left-right or Democratic-Republican splits. Talking points have not yet been sent out by the RNC or the DNC as to whether there should be a stoplight at the end of your street, new zoning rules, or a corrupt mayor.

While neighbors may not be able to agree on Supreme Court justices, they might find surprising agreement when it comes to, say, grocery store closures or the quality of drinking water.

Even when local reporting leads to polarization it may at least be along different fault lines than the national stories. That’s a victory in itself as we would at least understand our neighbors as multifaceted. Trust is a crop that must be locally grown.

Report for America, the national service program that places emerging journalists into local newsrooms, plans to put at least 250 reporters into American communities next year, with many  covering local elections. The goal is to place 1,000 in needed areas by 2024. Report for America is part of a growing movement to revitalize local news through community philanthropic support, including the American Journalism Project, which aims to bolster the business operations of non-profit local media.

But citizens like you can help too by supporting your local news outlets and demanding coverage of important local races in your own community. Yes, the Trump election may seem more consequential than coverage of the sewer board. But if you care about democracy, you need to worry about both.

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Steven Waldman

Steven Waldman, a contributing editor, is co-founder and president of Report for America, which places talented emerging journalists into local newsrooms.