Newsrooms are shrinking and newspapers are folding. The political environment has become increasingly divisive. These two trends are deeply connected, according to a recent study in the Journal of Communications, and they are dangerous not only for the media and our democracy, but for us as PR professionals.
The divisive nature of politics has resulted in constant and sometimes vicious attacks on the mainstream media that has eroded the public’s trust in the media – to the point where trust in the media is at an all-time low.
Meanwhile, the well-documented economic troubles of newspapers have meant less local political coverage and more dependence on a national media who report on national issues and party politics. When a local newspaper closes its doors or cuts political coverage, political parties have the opportunity to fill that void with their more polarized perspectives. As a result, voters are feeling disconnected from local politics and more likely to vote along party lines, and legislators are more worried about how they are viewed in the national media than how they are viewed by their constituents, according to the new study.
These trends reinforce each other, and that spells trouble for the PR industry. First of all, our value is linked to the third-party credibility of earned media; our industry is at its healthiest when the media is, too. Second, many of our clients feel caught in the middle of our divided society and may feel compelled to take a side. Taking a side can present its own set of PR risks.
For many communities, local newspapers have been where elected officials and candidates for office can communicate their views to voters and where journalists can hold them accountable. In these ways, local news encourages good representation. Less coverage means that voters will be less connected to their communities and their elected officials; this leads to apathy or straight party-line voting, the study says.
As coverage of political issues and candidates is more relegated to the national media, they are likely to focus on whether legislators support or oppose their respective political party lines. As a result, legislators are becoming more attentive to the needs and preferences of their political parties than they are to those of their home districts. Subsequently, the study found that in counties where there is no local news, there is more likely to be straight-ticket, party-line voting than in those counties with local news media.
What can be done? Some media experts suggest experimenting with new models for local news that serve communities, such as the model pioneered by public radio and TV stations with membership donations, public grants and multimedia outlets. Others suggest local governments should create local taxing districts to support local news, such as the way the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District in the Denver metropolitan area levies sales taxes to support cultural organizations. Still others suggest content partnerships (such as with ProPublica), or a wealthy owner (such as Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’ purchase of the Washington Post and the purchase of the Los Angeles Times by Patrick Soon-Shiong, a local biotech billionaire).
It is not clear yet where the solution will come from, but it is clear what will happen if there is no solution: an increasingly partisan country in which getting our messages out will become increasingly difficult. Meanwhile, corporations are often caught in the crossfire, with increasing public expectation that they will speak out or take a stand on national issues. That means, it’s more important than ever for communications teams to have a pulse on national issues that may impact their organization and be ready to respond.