Remembering Where People Get Their News

Riffing off of Kevin Drum’s post about Terry McDermott’s cover story about Fox News in the latest CJR (which you should read!), Matthew Yglesias yesterday made the now-familiar point that the folks in Washington are constantly watching cable news during the day, even though almost no one else is. Then he added:

By contrast, outlets that really are influential in terms of determining what people know—things like local broadcast TV news—are never watched by DC political professionals because you can’t see them without living in the local area.

It’s a good point, and one that not only politicians but also elite-media types (and the people who review them) should keep in mind. It’s fair to say that journalistic hierarchies are constructed so that national trumps local. And, while most media professionals love the chance to appear on camera, if you were to ask reporters who produces “good journalism,” in general the answer would be print/Web over TV. Put the two together, and local TV news is toward the bottom of the journalistic food chain.

But non-journalists don’t seem to see it that way. Last fall’s Pew survey on perceptions of the media found that TV remains the “dominant news source for the public,” with 71 percent of respondents saying they get most of their international/national news,* and 64 percent saying they get most of their local news, from TV. That’s not all: asked who does the most to uncover local stories, 44 percent of respondents said their local TV stations, while only one in four said their local paper. And while favorability ratings for all traditional news sources have declined, they’ve dropped less sharply, and shown less partisan polarization, for local TV news than for either daily newspapers or national newscasts. (The fact that local TV news generally focuses less on politics and government coverage than do other media is often held against it, journalistically-speaking, but in a polarized climate it may account for its relatively broad-based popularity.)

Obviously, given the radical shifts in the media environment all this is changing fast; the patterns of high-information news consumers—which, without looking up a study, I’m fairly certain are not oriented around local TV news—may become more widespread in the near future. Still, as a picture of how the broad public, such as it exists, gets its news today, it’s worth keeping in mind.

* Among these folks, about half cited cable and about half some form of over-the-air news, suggesting a somewhat larger role for cable than the ratings do. Still, nearly 1 in 5 respondents cited local TV programming as the source for most of their national/international news.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.