Inequality in Local News Raises Alarms for Democracy

The local news available where you live may depend on your community’s demographics.

According to a report published Thursday by the Rutgers Media and the Public Interest Initiative, wealthier communities may have better local news coverage than poorer ones.

The researchers, led by Rutgers Professor Philip Napoli, analyzed one week of journalism output in three New Jersey communities: Morristown, Newark and New Brunswick. They looked at the online output of all television, radio, print and digital journalism sources they could locate within these communities, including the home pages and social media postings for those outlets.

The differences they found are striking: The quality of local news stories differs dramatically according to population size and income level.

A greater proportion of the news local sources produced in relatively affluent Morristown was original, about the community, and addressed residents’ critical information needs compared to what researchers found in the larger, lower-income and more racially diverse city of Newark. New Brunswick, whose population size and per capita income fall between those of Morristown and Newark, approaches or exceeds Morristown on some measures, but falls below it on others. (“Critical information needs” is a broad list of topics including health, education, the environment, civic institutions and politics; for the full list, click here and scroll to table 1.)

While it isn’t possible to draw broad generalizations from an analysis of just three cities, the report demonstrates that income inequality may also translate into inequality of news coverage.

“If journalism and access to information are pillars of self-government, then these findings suggest those tools of democracy are not being distributed evenly, and that should be cause for concern,” Napoli said. He plans to apply the report’s methodology to a much larger set of U.S. cities.

Laura Hazard Owen wrote in Nieman Lab that the findings suggest “the rich/poor divide extends to local news.”

The Rutgers study was supported by the Democracy Fund, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, a team of funders supporting high-quality, sustainable local journalism in New Jersey through a network of grants and projects. Free Press is proud to take part in that effort via our recently launched News Voices: New Jersey project, which aims to build community engagement around local news.

Original photo of the Newark neighborhood of University Heights by Axel Drainville

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