What is local news? A recent report by the Pew Research Center claims to measure Americans' perceptions of journalism in their communities. But the results show that the largest share of the 35,000 people who were surveyed--38 percent--say their medium of choice is television.
Moreover, the kinds of news that respondents say are "important for daily life" are an exact match for the typical fare of a local TV newscast. Coming in first was weather (70 percent), followed by crime (44 percent), traffic and transportation (41 percent), and news about changing prices (37 percent). The fifth-most-cited topic, government and politics, was far behind at 24 percent. (The survey includes a wicked cool interactive on how people are consuming local news in different parts of the country.)
Reaction to the Pew survey has focused mainly on the fact that 71 percent of respondents seem to think their local news outlets are doing just fine financially, with only 14 percent saying they've paid for local news during the past year. 'These findings unnerved those who believe that local news is hugely important in our culture and that it needs public support to survive," wrote Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan. She quoted David Chavern, president of the News Media Alliance, as saying, "I found the survey results to be really sad and disturbing."
Sullivan and Chavern are right if you're talking about the sort of accountability journalism that we need to govern ourselves. But that's not really what Pew measured. To me, the more disturbing finding isn't that those surveyed misperceive the financial crisis facing local journalism--it's that they don't understand what local journalism is. In fact, as Laura Hazard Owen pointed out at the Nieman Lab, local TV news is doing OK financially, at least in comparison to newspapers. But the mission of TV news isn't really local. It's regional.
I have not come to bash the newscasts offered by local television. They perform a service. There's no reason to be snobbish about a roundup of breaking news, the weather, sports (even though it did poorly in the survey), and the odd waterskiing squirrel or two.
Yes, TV newscasts should offer more political, governmental, and investigative reporting than they do. (My Northeastern colleagues John Wihbey and Mike Beaudet are studying how to improve local TV news in advance of the 2020 elections.) But it's not their job to cover the routine occurrences of community life--that...