Orange County Register
The newsroom of the Orange County Register in Santa Ana, California on Dec. 27, 2012. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)

The most compelling recent call to arms against the spread of misinformation didn’t come from a summit of journalism school deans or newspaper editors. It came from a physician — specifically, the Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy.

“Health misinformation is a serious threat to public health,” Murthy said in the introduction to a report on the problem. “It can cause confusion, sow mistrust, harm people’s health, and undermine public health efforts. Limiting the spread of health misinformation is a moral and civic imperative that will require a whole-of-society effort.”

You’ve heard the wild rumors about the Covid vaccine. The vaccine spreads the disease. (No, it halts its progress). It compromises a woman’s ability to have children. (Nope.) They’ll charge you an arm and a leg for it. (No, it’s free, though if you have insurance it’s possible the provider will make your insurer pay something.)

I hesitate to furnish more examples because lies about Covid travel so much faster than the truth. Murthy suggested various ways that Americans can help, including each of us taking personal responsibility to identify, and not share, misinformation.

But this report — like most others that attempt to counter nonsense that’s being spread about the Covid vaccine or anything else — left out one of the most important steps: flooding the country with more local reporters to cover school board meetings, local hospitals, and restaurant openings. That sounds very pedestrian. Perhaps we figure that since algorithms created this ghastly problem, algorithms need to solve it. But adding, say, 10,000 new local reporters would be an excellent way to correct false information and temper polarization.

The collapse of local news is a significant reason why an uninformed citizenry has lately been disrupting democratic governance (for example, on Jan. 6, when an angry crowd of Trump supporters staged an insurrection in the Capitol based on the false belief that Joe Biden didn’t win the presidential election). At least 1,800 communities have no local newspaper, and thousands of others have ghost newspapers, with virtually no local news. (One study showed that on average only 20 percent of what appeared in local newspapers was local news — the rest was national or from the wire.)  Since 2000, the number of working newspaper reporters has dropped by 60 percent.

When newspaper readers and TV news viewers can’t get local news, they turn to two alternative sources, each problematic. One of these is national news and commentary. National news can be great (you’re reading this on a national-news website), but if it isn’t balanced by a diet of local news, consumers become more alienated from their communities. One study found that voters in areas with less local news were less likely to split their tickets—in other words, they nationalized their politics. Another study found that this polarization occurred because of “shifts in news consumption to national media.” The nationalization of politics exacerbates polarization, misinformation, and potentially even violence.

The second alternative news source is the stew of conspiracy theories and misinformation that flourish on social media and in other online communities (Facebook groups, NextDoor, Reddit). When there’s no local reporting for Facebook to offer up, the algorithm is more likely to advance other material–whatever “maximizes engagement.”

We need to fill the void. Replace national noise with local news, and bad information with good.

The first impact would be direct: Local facts would, at least in some instances, displace disinformation and conspiracy theories. If we added 10,000 reporters, with each doing, say, four stories a week, that would be two million more fact-based contributions to the information stew. In some cases, the stories would directly debunk health care misinformation, as local news so often did when it came to Covid-19.

The shift to local news wouldn’t eliminate controversy. Local issues are often quite controversial. But they cleave along different fault lines than national stories. The person who agrees with you that there shouldn’t be a wastewater treatment plant near the playground may disagree with you about the presidential election. Opinions about local matters are less predetermined by partisan allegiance than opinions on national matters.

Rebuilding local news would also help rebuild trust in the media — which is crucial because studies have shown that the more people distrust the media, the more likely they are to spread misinformation. We need to change not only the availability of information but also the often-toxic relationship between news consumers and news providers. Some 78 percent of Americans have never spoken to a reporter.  Small wonder: There are fewer reporters today than librarians.

We need Americans to learn who reporters really are: not perfectly coiffed talking heads yakking on cable TV, for the most part, but disheveled working stiffs sitting in the corner at the school board meeting, and not leaving until the very end. The folks who resent these hard-working scribes as the “cultural elite” often make twice their salary. Perhaps they’d realize that if they saw them on the grocery line.

As president of Report for America,  a nonprofit that sends young people to local newsrooms roughly on the model of Teach for America, I hear about this misconception again and again. Amelia Knisely, who covers poverty for the Mountain State Spotlight in West Virginia, said that most of the people she deals with say they distrust “the media” in one breath and praise in the next her excellent work holding local officials accountable for failing to implement anti-hunger programs.

It’s extremely difficult to convince a person that his or her beliefs are wrong. Convictions flow less from an analysis of facts than from a sense of personal identity, and by views within your social group. That’s unlikely to change without direct personal experiences.

So Americans need to have direct personal experiences with reporters. They need to hear, over and over, how seriously reporters take the verification process. They need to see, over and over, that for a journalist, making something up would be the equivalent of a doctor doing intentional harm to a patient. This isn’t going to happen from newspapers taking out ads to tell people how worthy they are. It won’t even happen solely by performing good journalism.

It’s always struck me as telling that people trust local TV news most of all, even though TV doesn’t invest as much as newspapers in the most significant accountability journalism. I suspect it’s because TV reporters are known and seen, and because (makeup and hairspray notwithstanding) they make a point of conveying that they’re “on your side.”

We can increase the number of local reporters if philanthropic groups step up and if Congress supports some First Amendment-friendly efforts. For instance, the bipartisan Local Journalism Sustainability Act would provide tax credits for consumers who want to subscribe to a local newspaper, donors who want to contribute to a local news nonprofit, businesses that want to advertise with local news, and publishers that want to hire local journalists.

More reporting will strengthen communities. Studies have shown that where there are more local reporters you find less corruption, less waste, less pollution, and higher participation. But to counter misinformation, we need to do something even more fundamental—change the perception of the journalist in the community. Journalists can’t re-establish trust if they are literally not there.

Steven Waldman

Follow Steven on Twitter @stevenwaldman. Steven Waldman is the president and co-founder of Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. He is the author of Sacred Liberty: America’s Long, Bloody, and Ongoing Struggle for Religious Freedom. As senior adviser to the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, he was the prime author of the landmark report Information Needs of Communities.