When it comes to local news mergers, bias top concern

Journalism / Article

This piece was originally published on Gallup.com on August 15, 2019.

In recent years, efforts to find a sustainable business model for local news coverage in the U.S. have resulted in the acquisition of local news organizations in different markets by large, national companies. Last week’s announcement of a merger between Gannett and Gatehouse media, which would consolidate ownership of more than 260 local newspapers, is the latest in a trend that also affects local TV, with companies such as Sinclair Broadcast Group buying stations around the country. 

Mergers such as these continue to alter the landscape of local news coverage and raise questions about its future. They also cause consumers of local news to express concern for a variety of reasons, including cuts in staffing and resources, the nationalization of news content, and the potential for greater bias in news coverage. 

A new nationally-representative online Gallup Panel survey conducted June 24 to July 11 is part of the Gallup-Knight Foundation series on trust, media and democracy that seeks to better understand Americans’ evolving opinions of the media. This latest survey finds that although majorities are concerned with all three potential risks to local news, the political views of national owners influencing local news coverage troubles Americans the most.

More than nine in 10 Americans are “very” (66%) or “somewhat” (26%) concerned that the owners’ views would influence coverage if a large company purchased their local news organization. Meanwhile, 77% of U.S. adults express concern that new owners would cover less news unique to their local area — 35% are very concerned about this and 42% are somewhat concerned. 

This is a very real trend in local news, with local outlets covering more national stories than in the past. But this shift appears to stem from decisions made by local news organizations, rather than a response to increased consumer demand for such news. 

Slightly fewer Americans overall worry about budget cuts, including 33% who are very concerned and 40% somewhat concerned. A recent Pew study found that most Americans think their local news media are doing well financially, despite evidence to the contrary. The public’s general lack of awareness about the financial difficulties facing many local news organizations may diminish their fears about budget cuts in local news coverage. 

The results are similar among all relevant demographic subgroups of Americans, including party, age and education, as well as by different levels of attention to local news. All express concern over these three risks of national news ownership of local news but show particular concern about the potential for political bias. 

Bottom Line 
Previous research from Gallup and the Knight Foundation established that perceived bias in news coverage is a top concern for Americans in the current politically polarized climate. The 2017 American Views: Trust, Media and Democracy study likewise found that most Americans see political bias in news coverage (45% said “a great deal” and 38% “a fair amount”). 

The latest Gallup/Knight polling builds on these findings and shows that Americans’ greatest concern about the trend of ownership consolidation of local news is the potential for political bias seeping into their local news coverage. This concern is far greater than concerns about potential budget cuts or a decrease in unique local news coverage. Perceived bias in the news reduces trust, which could erode overall trust in local news as an institution.