Learn more about the report’s key findings in this article on Knight Foundation’s blog.
Local news media are a cornerstone of democracy in the United States. They help keep residents informed of the significant issues facing their cities, towns and nearby areas; hold political and civic leaders accountable for their actions; and foster a sense of community among their readers and viewers. Public opinion research has shown that local news sources have typically earned more trust than their national counterparts.
This study — part of Knight Foundation’s Trust, Media and Democracy initiative with Gallup — probes Americans’ perceptions and assessments of local media in depth.
It finds that Americans mostly believe local news media are doing a good job performing many of their democratic roles and responsibilities. Americans assess local coverage of most important local issues positively, and they generally see local media as in step with, rather than at odds with, the political leanings of their local community.
While Americans give local news organizations stronger ratings than national organizations across most trust dimensions, such as relevancy and transparency, evidence suggests this trust advantage is more a sign of skepticism toward national media than of enthusiasm toward local news organizations.
Partisanship is becoming a powerful lens through which people evaluate not just national news organizations like CNN and Fox News, but also their local newspaper or TV station. Democrats are more likely than Republicans to trust local news to perform their roles, but the gap is especially wide when it comes to geing the facts right. Although 51% of Americans do not perceive that their local news has become more biased in recent years, those who believe it has are more likely to see a shift toward liberal views. Critically, Americans who perceive a shift in the bias of local news coverage are about half as likely to trust local news as those who do not.
The study findings present a dilemma for local news. The data suggest that moving into more aggressive coverage of social and political issues could further polarize views — and possibly lead to an erosion of trust. However, these are not issues that local news organizations can abandon without abdicating some of their mandate to help democracy flourish.
Local news may have built a trust advantage by being associated with reporting largely nonpartisan topics like local business development, crime, cultural events, the weather and sports, but the more it wades into coverage of national issues, the more vulnerable it may be to accusations of bias and a loss of community trust. Even as research suggests that local news sources are increasingly relying on nonlocal news stories, the public hasn’t noted such a shift. Instead, to maintain its trust advantage, new findings suggest that local news organizations can increase their focus on local content.