The place for local news in a national debate

There’s plenty to consider about the role debate moderators and political commentators play in effectively informing the American electorate. But it’s also worth considering the role local journalism plays in serving its portions of that same electorate. People tend to trust local news more than national news, as a 2018 Poynter survey indicated. Trust plays a foundational role in effectively distributing public-service information, putting local journalists in powerful positions to shape their audience’s civic engagement. Local journalists wield their power most effectively when they offer their audiences something exclusive: localized angles. 

On Tuesday night, as viewers across the country tuned in to the CNN-New York Times Democratic debate in Westerville, Ohio, a few journalists in that state capitalized on their geographic access to the debate and their proximity to candidate talking points by offering their audiences fact-checks and careful context. Cincinnati Enquirer reporters Jessie Balmert and Jackie Borchardt fact-checked a list of claims made by candidates about Ohio, from Julian Castro’s lament that Ohioans were losing jobs under Trump (employment rates have steadily grown and since 2010) to Yang’s assertion that Ohio prescribed more opioids than it had people (that checks out). 

Other local publications beyond Ohio took advantage of their own resources and considered their audience in different ways. The Des Moines Register, located in an early primary state, tweeted a link to their Candidate Tracker, which aggregates relevant caucus headlines and upcoming public appearances by all the candidates. Michigan reporter Malachi Barrett wrote for MLive about the United Auto Workers strikes, an issue pertinent to Michigan voters that he felt had been largely glossed over on the Ohio debate stage. (Mike Elk wrote about coverage of the UAW/GM strikes this morning for CJR.)

A host of local news publications across the country—the Patriot-News on PennLive, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and the Dayton Daily News in Ohio, just to name a few—posted live updates throughout the debates. Some news sites populated their debate pages with political reporters’ tweets, which meant many local outlets mirrored the hot takes happening at the national level. “Put me down for Medicare For All Who Don’t Want to Hear Any More About It Right Now,” tweeted John Bridges, editor of the Austin American-Statesman. Other local sites honed in on those candidates from their state: The IndyStar dedicated its real-time debate blog exclusively to Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and the El Paso Times did the same for Castro and O’Rourke. 

Other local outlets focused their work on general analysis and national storylines. Reporters at the Tampa Bay Times, for example, addressed Tulsi Gabbard’s complaint about a recent New York Times article that, she claimed, called her “a Russian asset and an Assad apologist.” The Tampa Bay Times parsed Gabbard’s response as many national news outlets did. (“The Times story didn’t accuse Gabbard of being a Russian asset,” Tampa reporters wrote. “It just noted that she has the support of some on the far-right and is mentioned frequently on Russian state news media.”) But is such generalized debate coverage at the local level worth something more for Tampa Bay readers? Or is it a missed opportunity to bend a national debate to local concerns?

As local news struggles for readership and attention, it’s worth considering the singular services local journalists are able to provide readers during nationally significant media moments. Local news has the power to move far beyond important basic services such as linking readers to debate-watching sites; instead, it might reward its audience’s trust with localized perspectives in a shared language and a common context. With the 2020 presidential election still more than a year away, there will be plenty more opportunities for local journalists across the country to rise to their unique occasion.

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Below, more on the debate:

  • Hunter questions, pt. 1: Before the debate, Hunter Biden appeared in an exclusive interview with ABC News to refute President Trump’s widely debunked allegation that his father, Joe Biden, pressured Ukranian officials to fire a prosecutor investigating Burisma, a Ukranian company at which Hunter was a board member. In the ABC interview, Amy Robach asked Hunter about his salary (reported at more than $50,000 a month), his qualifications to be on Burisma’s board, and whether or not he discussed his position with his father. Hunter declined to discuss his salary and maintained that he was qualified to serve on the board, though he admitted he couldn’t untangle his last name from many of the privileges he enjoys in life. He repeatedly insisted that his father was above reproach.
  • Hunter questions, pt. 2: Later, during the debate, Anderson Cooper asked Joe Biden two questions about the same issue. The first question openly (and accurately) declared Trump’s allegation false, while the second question suggested that Hunter Biden has stepped down from Burisma out of guilt or culpability, rather than political pressure. Politico ran down the partisan critiques of Cooper’s framing 
  • ICYMI: Last month, I talked with Adam Entous about his Hunter Biden profile and how to responsibly report on these allegations.

Other notable stories:

  • Staff, producers, and supporters of Brooklyn broadcast station WBAI gathered at City Hall to protest the station’s contentious and abrupt closure by its parent nonprofit, the Pacifica Foundation. The Nation reported earlier this October that the community-based radio’s local station board had gotten a temporary restraining order to limit the Pacifica Foundation’s control, but the parent company did not comply with the order. Before a contempt-of-court hearing took place, the proceedings were moved to a Manhattan court. The Brooklyn Eagle reported yesterday that the temporary restraining order was reactivated, “prohibit[ing] Pacifica from keeping local broadcasting off-air” until an upcoming court date.
  • The Texas Tribune and ProPublica announced that they will join forces for a special investigative unit. The newsroom will be based in Austin, but will draw upon the resources of both organizations.
  • The Hollywood Reporter noted that media mogul Shari Redstone is exploring a plan to launch a conservative TV station as a competitor to Fox News. The move, which is not official, would likely rebrand an existing Viacom channel. 
  • TechCrunch reported that Twitter plans to restrict users’ ability to interact with the tweets of world leaders who break its user guidelines. Though the tweets will continue to exist, users will be unable to re-tweet, like, or comment on posts that do not meet the social-media company’s standards.
  • Hachette Australia—a publisher of Ronan Farrow’s Catch and Kill—will continue with its plans to release the book, despite a legal threat from Australian journalist Dylan Howard that has discouraged an online distributor and some Australian book sellers from stocking it. The Guardian has more

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Lauren Harris is a freelance journalist. She writes CJR's weekly newsletter for the Journalism Crisis Project. Follow her on Twitter @LHarrisWrites