Tow Center

The ‘fake news’-ification of local news—and what to do about it

April 16, 2024
Image: Adobe Stock 466488235

The Letter from the Editor that ran on March 23, 2021, did not shrink from acknowledging the challenges the Bucks County Courier Times faces reaching conservative readers in its politically diverse community. But Shane Fitzgerald, then the paper’s executive editor, still managed to take a hopeful tone.

“We’ve been called biased, fake news, a liberal rag — and those are the kind ones.… We want to find a way to constructively engage and connect with [the conservative] point of view.” 

The paper would be launching a new initiative, he announced, to better understand and connect with its alienated right-wing readers. “We have to make an effort to listen to one another, for the greater good of our communities,” he wrote.

Six months later, Fitzgerald published another letter to readers that struck a decidedly less optimistic tone. Explaining the ground rules for the paper’s opinion section, Fitzgerald grumbled:

“The idealistic and, frankly, naive goal would be to help people rationally discuss issues, candidates and the future.… Some of you are going to stop reading after this next set of bullet points, but I’ll go ahead and elicit eye rolls and angst anyway.”

He listed points the Courier would refuse to treat as open questions—such as claims that “the election was stolen”—despite knowing this would elicit precisely the accusations of “fake news” and “liberal rag” he had lamented half a year before.

Local news is a darling of the moment in the journalism world. Thinkers and funders have trained their attention on (variously) “saving,” “rebuilding,” and “reinvigorating” journalism that serves communities outside of major cities and the national spotlight. For good reason. The capacity of local news to share useful information across a community (there have been multiple traffic accidents at intersection x), enable civic engagement (neighbors want to install a traffic light), and hold leaders accountable (the mayor used the traffic light money to put a hot tub in town hall) is obvious. What’s more, local news really does need saving. There’s no clear, sustainable revenue model for news outlets that cover zoning-board hearings and water main breaks, and as a result, local newspapers have been dropping like flies or getting caught in the deadly web of private equity ownership. Much of the country is now served by no local news outlet at all.

There’s another reason for local journalism being in fashion: it feels insulated from the ugliness of partisan politics. The most recent Great Hopes of media research and philanthropy, misinformation and disinformation studies, are falling out of favor, perhaps in part because they acquired the familiar stench of polarization. Proponents of local news, however, boast about the trust local news still enjoys, even across party lines. After all, what do high school sports and Girl Scouts building a sensory garden for shelter dogs have to do with Joe Biden and Donald Trump?

But if money and energy are going to be poured into local news with the assumption that local journalists are and will remain trusted across partisan lines, we’re going to be in for an unpleasant surprise. Yes, polling shows that local news is more trusted across the political spectrum than national news, but only 29 percent of Republicans surveyed by Gallup in 2021 said they trusted their local news, down from 34 percent in 2019. This is consistent with what I’ve heard from journalists who work for local outlets (mostly but not exclusively in Pennsylvania) and conservatives who read or have stopped reading them. In fact, the striking thing when you examine the relationship between local news and conservative audiences is that, in spite of all the differences between the Bucks County Courier Times and the New York Times, their alienation from conservatives sounds dishearteningly similar.

Also disheartening are the results of efforts to win the trust of conservative readers through friendly outreach and labored neutrality. The right’s fury with the press is woven too deeply into the stories told every day in conservative circles to be undone this way. If local journalism is really to be revived, those who hope to revive it will need to try something more ambitious: they’ll need to interject in the conversations about journalism within conservative networks, and offer a compelling new explanation of who local journalists are and why conservatives might want to listen to them.

A “disappointing withdrawal from honest reporting”

Signs that many conservatives have come to regard local journalism with the same antipathy they have for the national “MSM” are not subtle. Fitzgerald’s paper, for example, was the subject in 2022 of a series of blog posts titled “Correcting the Courier.” In an intro post, right-wing activist Joshua Hogan wrote:

“As the Bucks County Courier Times continues their descent into becoming a far-left tabloid (think of them as our own local version of the Huffington Post), the falsehoods they publish must be corrected.

“Our new ‘Correcting the Courier’ series aims to counteract the Courier’s disappointing withdrawal from honest reporting.”

With increasing regularity in 2016 and even more frequently in 2020, journalists at local publications began to hear themselves described this way by angry readers, including some who announced they were canceling their subscriptions because of political bias. (It’s very hard to find data on why people cancel subscriptions, so I can’t tell you whether many have followed through on the threat.)

One response to the explosion of anger was to blame stories from wire services—the Associated Press, Reuters, etc.—that local papers run about highly polarized national politics. In other words, Joe Conservative picks up his local paper, sees an article that is too friendly to President Biden for his taste, does not notice or care that it is an AP piece written by a reporter who lives in Washington and has never heard of the Chattanooga Times Free Press, and decides the paper is part of the liberal media.

Some readers will undoubtedly conflate wire stories in their local newspaper with the work of local journalists. But it would be a mistake to conclude this is the sole cause of conservative alienation from local journalism.

If you ask conservative readers what upsets them about their local outlets, they include coverage of decidedly local issues in their critiques. Stories about COVID regulations come up a lot in these conversations, which is unsurprising given the partisan anger around lockdowns and mask mandates. But it’s not just COVID. Tim Price, a conservative and longtime reader of the Chattanooga Times Free Press, says he detects “liberal bias” in “their phrasing with their headlines, their placement of articles.” By way of example, he cited a proposal to raise taxes in Chattanooga.

“They’ll have a really big story about why we need this tax increase, and then they’ll come to somebody like me and I’ll go, ‘Well, you know, why don’t they get rid of the county cars? Why don’t they sell some of those five hundred tractors and put the money into schools?’ And they’ll give me maybe one paragraph.”

Mara Witsen, a conservative community activist in Pennsylvania, said her issues with the local press are usually about fairness rather than accuracy. “You only get one side of the story,” she said. Another Pennsylvania conservative, who asked not to be named due to fear of retribution from local reporters she said write “hit pieces,” said, “It doesn’t seem to me that they make a practice of quoting, or really making a legitimate effort to talk to, the other side.”

Conservatives have not always felt this way. A former Republican county official named Andy Warren said that when he was in office in Pennsylvania, in the 1980s and ’90s, “I always felt that I was not dealing with someone who wanted to do anything other than present both sides of an issue to their readers.” As for why things are different now, the people I spoke with offered a variety of theories, ranging from generational culture change (young liberals are less fair-minded, basically) to a concerted, top-down effort from media companies to suppress the right.

Conservative leaders have adjusted to—or encouraged—these perceptions by refusing to engage with the press. Republican candidates and officials now regularly respond to reporters’ questions with Trumpian “fake news” tirades, or ignore them entirely. A reporter from a digital publication told me that the conservative members of the school boards he covers won’t speak to reporters, period. One time, he recalled, he went up to a board member to ask for clarification about the timeline of an initiative. She listened politely until she realized who he was, then put up her hands and slowly backed away. “She acted like I was sticking her up.” This creates a vicious cycle: conservatives don’t like the press because they don’t think it includes enough conservative voices, so they don’t talk to the press, so the press doesn’t include conservative voices.

Local journalists I spoke with deny accusations of bias, as a general matter. Several expressed an old-fashioned, almost quaint allegiance to the ideals of objectivity and fairness, saying they were pleased when both liberals and conservatives were angry at them and pointing to practices like counting the quotes they include from Democrats and Republicans as evidence of their neutrality. They feel they are doing their jobs the same way they always have, but getting a different result.

One reporter, who asked not to be identified, threw up her hands at complaints about only giving “one side of the story.” “We write to you all the time, and you don’t respond,” she said. Christopher Ullery, who covered government and politics for the Bucks County Courier Times during the pandemic, said he eventually stopped believing the criticisms had much to do with what he actually wrote. “Whereas before, especially for the conservative side, I would get criticized, at least I would get the impression that somebody was reading the story and then criticizing. This is ‘Oh, you’re a reporter? Go to hell.’”

Journalists’ thoughts on this are by no means uniform. Some are more hostile to conservatives, dismissing traditional neutrality as “bothsidesism” and wondering why they should give “balanced” coverage to election denialism or anti-trans legislation. Others are more open to the possibility that conservatives have valid reasons to feel alienated by their coverage. But none of the reporters I spoke with viewed themselves as progressive activists working to discredit the right as part of an ideological project.

I’m not seeking to adjudicate this dispute. The extent to which “local journalism” has an unfair bias against conservatives will vary by publication, by subject, by reporter, by story, and by definition of “fairness.” It’s probably safest to say that all of the following statements contain important elements of truth:

  • Journalism is, broadly speaking, a profession that attracts liberal-leaning people, and newsrooms tend to have a liberal-leaning culture, including in more right-leaning parts of the country.
  • In recent years many liberals have become less willing to treat right-wing ideas as acceptable discourse, and less willing to use language that might feel politically “neutral”—though it is difficult to separate this development from the fact that… 
  • The Trump era has made it more difficult to give respectful coverage to right-wing ideas while adhering to standards of decency and accuracy, and it is wrong to give “both sides” coverage to bigotry or lies.
  • Right-wing leaders have long found it useful to demonize the press, and now that they are less reliant on the media to reach their constituents, many have more interest in using journalists as foils than in honest engagement.

The net effect of these developments is that local news, like national news before it, has acquired a liberal reputation in conservative communities, and reporters who cover local crime and zoning-board hearings have joined their national counterparts as villains in the right-wing narrative of American life.

A hard look in the mirror

As Tony Nadler and I have argued, there are two schools of thought about how to deal with journalism’s alienation from conservative audiences: Make Nice, and Screw Them.

The Screw Them philosophy holds that, in addition to the fact that treating bigotry and lies “fairly” is wrong, reaching out to conservatives “isn’t going to work anyway,” because conservatives don’t want to trust the mainstream media. Therefore, journalists should stop worrying about what conservatives think of their coverage, and go about telling the truth as best they can.

Even if you think CNN should write off the conservative audience, however, it’s important to recognize that local outlets in red and purple areas can’t afford to do so. They can’t afford it economically—CNN can target educated liberals and survive; the West Plains Daily Quill cannot. They also can’t afford it if they wish to fulfill their mission of informing their communities. 

The Make Nice approach, meanwhile, has in practice meant demonstrative adherence to the protocols of objectivity, with the occasional crackdown on reporters who demonstrate the liberal bias conservatives have decried for so long. On this, the Screw Them people are correct: it won’t work. It’s unrealistic to think that if local journalists—many of whom already try hard to be neutral—try just a little harder in this regard, they’ll get a dramatically different result.

A small movement has recently taken hold to get more ambitious about repairing the relationship between local news and its audiences. Let’s call this the “Earn Trust” movement, after the mission statement of Trusting News, one of the organizations leading the push. Joy Mayer, who directs Trusting News, thinks it is crucial to put the onus of “earning” trust on journalists. She says she understands there are problems “on both sides of the relationship” between journalists and audiences, including conservatives. But she is focused on getting journalists to take responsibility for their side.

Informed by interviews with conservative readers conducted in partnership with news outlets across the country, Trusting News presses journalists to “evolve their practices” to earn more trust. They give reporters guidance on how to “engage regularly with people who don’t trust news,” to reevaluate their sourcing and framing practices, to think carefully and deliberately about their own assumptions and how those might influence coverage, and to build newsroom cultures that value discussion and dissent. They offer an “anti-polarization checklist” for reviewing copy (“examine your adjectives describing: groups, actions, points of view. Are they necessary?”) and a list of “words to watch” that might set off alarms for readers alert to journalists making judgments (“thwarts”; “claims”; “supposed”). 

Above all, Trusting News urges journalists to explain their editorial decisions to readers. This, Mayer argues, is often more important than the decisions themselves. When I pushed her on what journalists should do when conservatives feel alienated by a newsroom’s agreed-upon language—something as simple as the term “trans woman,” for example—she said, “Our role is not to tell people what language to use. It’s to make sure they know who they’re serving, whether you’re explaining yourselves.… The answer is gonna be different in Fort Worth and San Francisco.”

Some journalists on the ground believe this approach has potential to make headway with at least some conservatives. Allison Shirk, the director of digital content and engagement strategy for WEHCO Media, has been trying to persuade her colleagues that there is real opportunity—and necessity—here. Shirk came to my attention when she initiated a discussion at an Online News Association conference about whether “inclusion” includes conservatives. She says one lesson from her attempts to connect with conservative readers is that they shouldn’t be treated as a monolith. Some might be a lost cause when it comes to earning trust, but others are more willing to be won over.

I think all of this is correct, and also not enough.

It’s not me, it’s you

Looking in the mirror and holding yourself accountable is admirable. But it seems unlikely that the relationship between local journalists and conservative audiences can be repaired by addressing problems on only one side.

Journalists interrogating their assumptions and taking greater care with language is likely to fall short because the reception of journalists’ work depends on more than the content of their coverage. Audiences’ impressions of news and news outlets are formed with our “interpretive communities”—social networks on- and offline that connect us to news and influence our understanding of it. Some news content gets filtered through these networks—when you see a New York Times article because someone you follow on social media posts about it, for example. But even when we read, watch, or listen to the news ourselves, we bring with us the stories and interpretations favored by the communities we identify with.

Conservative communities often tell a story of liberal media bias, and while it is possible local news was once spared the “liberal media” treatment, it’s not as much anymore. For many conservatives, then, when they encounter local news, they do so from a position of suspicion and hostility. This doesn’t necessarily mean they’re criticizing before reading, and it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re interpreting in bad faith. But it does mean that stories carefully audited to be depolarizing, even if successful, will feel like exceptions, and stories that challenge conservative sensibilities, even if fairly, will reinforce pre-existing perceptions. A deeply entrenched narrative won’t be dislodged by coverage that breaks even.

This is not fair to journalists. If their reporting is rigorous, open-minded, and informed, why should they worry when conservatives—and bad-faith conservative demagogues—object? But the reality is that aspects of this situation that are not journalists’ fault are nevertheless their problem. And, crucially, the fact that something is not their fault does not mean they can’t do anything about it.

News organizations that want to regain trust among a meaningful proportion of conservatives need to find ways to change the narrative told about them in conservative communities. It’s unlikely this will happen by letting their coverage speak quietly for itself. And of course they shouldn’t morph into miniature Fox News outlets pandering to conservative sensibilities. But they can try to reduce how much the “liberal media” story defines them by offering competing narratives about who they are and what they do.

Though it may not be comfortable terrain for some local reporters, this could involve direct public engagement akin to a political or branding campaign. On social media, in community events, in missives that speak straight to readers, or perhaps even in advertising, journalists can join the conversation about who they are and tell a different story.

Any alternative story that breaks through will likely vary by news outlet and community. A common theme of conservative press complaints is that journalists belong to a “liberal elite,” and in some places there may be opportunities for the local press—not exactly a bunch of fat cats—to emphasize that they are working people looking to protect their communities from powerful outside forces. Elsewhere, there might be potential to win the allegiance of some right-leaning press skeptics by branding community news outlets as instruments of unity. There could also be ways to attract portions of the conservative audience by appealing to other aspects of their identities, and winning their allegiance by speaking to them as (for example) senior citizens, or veterans, or rural residents.

“Conservative,” after all, is neither an immutable characteristic nor, for many people who think of themselves as conservatives, a simple matter of political beliefs. People are drawn to conservatism for different reasons, and a common one is a sense cultivated by right-wing leaders that only the right respects and supports their social group. Journalists can challenge this. There is no deeply rooted narrative saying the press can’t fight for seniors.

Of course, any such claim will need to be backed up by coverage that substantiates it. This means pursuing stories that in fact aim to protect the interests of working people, or seniors, or whichever focus makes sense in a given community. It also means embracing a style that speaks to those audiences. It is probably not a coincidence that many of the media outlets succeeding with demographics that constitute big portions of the conservative audience take a splashy, tabloid approach rather than the staid tones of the broadsheet newspaper. People find ways to like content they find interesting.

The important thing is to join the fight. The self-reflection encouraged by Trusting News is an essential step, and needs to be complemented by an aggressive effort to penetrate the interpretive networks that define the local press for conservative audiences, inject another interpretation, and signal to these communities that the local press cares about their interests.

There are no guarantees this will work. But it seems extremely likely at this point that what won’t work is complacently pointing to the trust local news has enjoyed in the past. Nor can local outlets in red or purple areas realistically respond to conservative alienation by insisting more fervently on a neutrality right-wingers believe was lost long ago. What they can do instead is try to “earn trust”—and, just as importantly, tell a new and better story about why conservatives should trust them.


Doron Taussig teaches journalism and politics at Ursinus College, and is a fellow at Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism. He is the author of What We Mean by the American Dream: Stories We Tell about Meritocracy. 

About the Tow Center

The Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism, a partner of CJR, is a research center exploring the ways in which technology is changing journalism, its practice and its consumption — as we seek new ways to judge the reliability, standards, and credibility of information online.

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