Attitudes About Local News Mostly Stable Amid COVID

Journalism / Article

Americans are paying more attention to local news and rate its coronavirus coverage positively, but most of their fundamental attitudes about local news are not improving.

The coronavirus situation has led to a spike in attention to news. Although attention to national and international news has fallen back to pre-coronavirus levels in recent weeks, attention to local news, though also down, remains higher than before COVID-19. Additionally, more Americans consider themselves to be “very informed” about local issues than did so last year.

Americans acknowledge the importance of local news in a time of crisis and are generally positive about the way it has handled the coronavirus situation. However, other than a modest increase in confidence in local news as well as other local institutions, their attitudes about the importance of the ways local news performs its basic roles and covers specific issues, including public health, have not changed.

These results are from an April 14-20 Gallup/Knight Foundation survey focused on the coronavirus situation, part of the Knight Foundation’s Trust, Media and Democracy initiative.

Attention to News Is Down From Peak, but Still Higher Than Before Crisis

The survey finds 32% of U.S. adults paying “a great deal of attention” to local news. Although this is down from 44% in March, it remains 10 percentage points higher than the pre-coronavirus reading in December and is significantly higher than all other 2018-19 measurements.

By contrast, attention to national and international news is also lower now than in March, but only slightly higher than before the coronavirus situation, and the same as or lower than most other 2018-2019 measures.

Notably, there has been an increase in the percentage of Americans who consider themselves to be “very informed” about local issues. The 28% who say they are very informed is up from four separate 2019 readings that ranged between 17% and 21%.

The increase is greater among college graduates (up 13 points since last fall to 34%) than those with some college (up six points, to 29%) or no college (up four points, to 23%).

Local News, National Network News and Newspapers Rated Best for COVID-19 Coverage

Local TV news is rated best for the coverage it is giving to the coronavirus situation, with 55% describing the coverage as “excellent” or “good.” National network news, local and national newspapers, and local radio news receive nearly as positive ratings, while national cable TV news and online news organizations get less positive reviews.

Seven in 10 Americans say local news is “extremely” (31%) or “very” (39%) important for “providing factual, relevant information during times of crisis.”

Of five specific types of information people may want to learn about the coronavirus situation, Americans are most looking toward local news to inform them how local political, business and economic leaders in their community are responding to the coronavirus situation (68%) and how to protect themselves from being infected by the virus (62%). A majority of 55% also turn to local news to find out where to seek medical attention if they think they have the coronavirus. Fewer see local news as a source for dealing with the economic impact of the situation (44%) or finding out how to purchase household necessities (31%).

Americans are generally positive in their ratings of how local news is covering these aspects of the coronavirus situation, particularly the ones people say they most want to know about, including how to avoid being infected by the virus.

Modest Increase in Confidence in News Organizations and Other Local Institutions

Consistent with observed approval rating bumps for the president and Congress amid the coronavirus situation, more Americans also say they are confident in local news, as well as other local institutions.

Currently, 42% of U.S. adults say they have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in news organizations in their local area, a modest increase from 37% last summer. Local government, businesses and schools also show meaningful increases in confidence since last year, with the 10-point increase in local government the highest.

Local government and local news organizations still engender less confidence than other local institutions. Local businesses, hospitals and libraries are the highest-rated local institutions, with roughly seven in 10 expressing confidence in these.

Confidence in local news has grown among Democrats (up eight points to 58%) and independents (up six points to 37%), while there has been no change among Republicans (27%).

Specific Aspects of Local News Coverage Rated No Better

Even as more Americans express confidence in the institution of local news, they are not increasingly positive about the way local news is performing its key functions or how it is covering specific issues.

Americans are positive about the way local news handles some of its key societal roles, but are generally no more positive now than they were a year ago. About six in 10 rate local news positively for educating people about what is happening in their area, providing the information they need to participate in public affairs, providing factual news reports about the community and making residents feel connected to the community.

Americans’ trust in local news to cover specific issues has also not improved; in fact, most show small but not statistically meaningful decreases. These include public health, the dominant issue for local news amid the coronavirus situation. Fifty-five percent of Americans say they have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of trust in local news coverage of public health and safety, compared with 58% last year.

Still, public health remains one of the issues, along with the environment and weather emergencies, that Americans are most likely to trust local news to cover.

Implications

The coronavirus situation has prompted Americans to pay greater attention to local news, and their attention remains elevated compared with what it was before the crisis, even with a decline in recent weeks. Americans are generally positive about local news coverage of the situation. The coronavirus situation has provided local news with an opportunity to convince the public of the vital role it can play in shepherding them through a crisis, something Americans largely acknowledge.

However, other than an increase in confidence of local news organizations that may be part of a rising tide lifting confidence in most local institutions, local news does not appear to be benefiting much from the coronavirus situation.

This is especially notable at a time when many local news organizations — particularly newspapers — are being forced to lay off large portions of staff to address the financial fallout of the coronavirus situation that is hitting them especially hard.

The same Gallup/Knight Foundation survey finds a small percentage of U.S. local news nonsubscribers willing to personally pay to support local news. While Americans do favor directing federal COVID-19 relief funds to local news organizations, they advocate spending only a small amount for that purpose.


Image (top) by CoWomen on Unsplash

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