Fox in the Hen House: How Partisan Sites are Papering Over the Local News Void
Citizens across the United States are in the process of deciding which candidates have earned their votes for elected office, using the information available to them. Voters are being provided with more streams of information than ever before from campaign advertising to memes on Facebook to media coverage, and everything in between. Unfortunately when it comes to media, many voters only have access to cable news or national papers. While these outlets provide varying degrees of objective coverage, Americans have steadily lost trust in them. Local news, however, has continued to receive higher marks and trust and credibility — where it still exists.
Many communities don’t have access to objective local news because of the increasingly challenging economics of providing it. As outlets have consolidated or disappeared, consumer demand has remained strong, which has opened the door to actors with entirely different motives to fill the void. Partisans on both sides of the political spectrum have invested heavily in local news operations in almost every state.
The backers of these sites include candidates, political action committees (PACs), nonprofits, and individuals who seek to advance a particular viewpoint. Their identities and agendas are rarely clear to readers or even well-informed industry insiders. If it weren’t for thorough research done at universities and by investigative journalists, the true extent of their reach would be difficult, if not impossible to identify.
The content on these sites ranges from very overtly partisan, to more subtle. Some sites play a long game, by making editorial choices that present otherwise object information in a specific light. Slanted headlines, partisan framing and choices about what facts to include and what facts to omit lead to an information environment that is designed to lead readers down a specific path. None of this does readers, or our democracy, any favors.
For example, the Ohio Star, a right-leaning site that is a part of a network of several sites, is run by political activists. The site carries innocuous entertainment headlines about the Walking Dead T.V. series, while also publishing stories that read like press releases from the Trump Administration, and exclusively features right-wing commentary. Politico referred to the Star network of sites as “baby Breitbarts.”
On the other side of the aisle, The Keystone is funded by progressive nonprofit ACRONYM. They run political coverage alongside more mundane stories about Pennsylvania’s fall foliage. In fairness, The Keystone does disclose their funding. The same is true of their Virginia-based site, The Dogwood. Despite their disclosures, they are facing a complaint from a conservative organization that claims they are an unregistered political committee.
These are just two examples. There are hundreds of sites like these across the country.
Readers are faced with the difficult task of deciphering what is objective news and what is content that resembles news. These sites, and their backers, are able to take advantage of the trust that remains in local news and build large audiences, including on social media. Sites with a partisan bent are likely to survive, but we need to provide a viable alternative.
Continuing to innovate and develop new business models is critical if we are to rebuild the local news ecosystem in towns and cities across the United States.