The Downfall of Local News:
How the newest member of the Fortune 500 is crushing local journalism.
By Nathaniel Hylton
Earlier this month, Sinclair Broadcast Group was thrilled to share with the world that the telecommunications company, after decades of growth, had finally made its way into the coveted Fortune 500 list. What Sinclair’s self-congratulatory press release failed to mention was that this rise to the top was achieved on the backs of struggling local news outlets across the country.
Local news is being destroyed. Over the past decade, media consolidation has significantly decreased the number of news outlets operating across the United States. Since 2004, over 2,000 newspapers have closed for good. Consequently, the majority of counties are now served at most by a single newspaper. The lack of local news coverage reflects a troubling trend of the nationalization and consolidation of news, and it’s not just happening to print media.
It’s been reported that just five companies now own nearly 40% of broadcast TV stations nationwide. The largest amongst these is Sinclair, which owns 193 stations across 89 markets, allowing it to reach 39% of American viewers each day. When media companies get acquired by larger entities, it’s only natural for some programming restructuring to occur; but when Sinclair gobbles up local stations, the news they report tends to get considerably less local. After the conservative broadcast group purchased 14 local television stations, researchers found a 25 percent drop in local news coverage.
These acquisitions also promote homogeneity in reporting, which the nation saw firsthand in April of 2018, when a clip of local news anchors all reading the same news script word for word went viral. After the local news anchors introduced themselves and stated their devotion to reporting stories about their respective communities, they all continued on to say they were “concerned about the troubling trend of irresponsible, one-sided news stories plaguing our country,” seemingly unaware that they were currently a part of one. The anchors furthered that media outlets publish “fake stories” that “just aren’t true, without checking facts first,” and that people use the media and their “platforms to push their own personal bias[es] and agenda[s],” again, not acknowledging the fact that their own platforms were, at that very moment, being used to push Sinclair’s.
People watching from home in their respective news markets likely didn’t know that Sinclair required these local news reporters to read these scripts as part of a larger message to viewers that other, liberal news outlets were controlling what people think. The fact that this particular script about the dangers of mass manipulation was the one chosen to expose forced homogeneity among Sinclair stations was the height of irony, but it ultimately did nothing to lessen the corporation’s influence. Sinclair’s centralization of a singular viewpoint combined with the continuing obligation of its local subsidiaries to repeat and promote those messages with no room for dissent is beyond worrisome.
Sinclair has long produced these “must-run” segments for its local stations, dispersing them to its various subsidiaries and requiring the local stations to run controversial, typically conservative commentary promos alongside their regular news coverage. These mandatory segments included a 2016 package stating that voters shouldn’t support Hillary Clinton because the Democratic Party was historically pro-slavery, and exclusive interviews with Donald Trump after Jared Kushner struck a deal with Sinclair.
Sinclair’s messages are not just politically slanted, but highly targeted as well. It now owns more local news stations in electoral swing states than any other company. The company’s executive chairman, David D. Smith, even met with Donald Trump during his 2016 campaign, reportedly telling him that “we are here to deliver your message. Period.” Without disclosing the company’s biases and power to direct programming, Sinclair should not have such a strong, direct influence over local news messaging. Given their direct, scripted, partisan messaging, it should come as no surprise that in the 2016 election, voters in areas with a high average concentration of Sinclair stations chose Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton by an average of 19 points.
Sinclair’s takeover of local news stations has not only accelerated the downfall of local news, it has also created a right wing echo chamber among media outlets. In a 2017 analysis of local news coverage of 743 stations nationwide over a nine-month period, researchers found that local stations showed a rightward political shift after Sinclair acquired them. The conclusion was based on an analysis of the language used in national news segments that aired on these local stations nationwide.
But why is the downfall of local news coverage so troubling? Notably, the weakening of true local journalism can lead to more corruption. There are far too many municipalities across the country for even the largest national news outlet to keep an eye on, so it falls to local news outlets to serve as monitoring agents that can keep their local officials accountable. Investigative reporters employed by local stations often expose mismanaged projects, act as government watchdogs, and provide the type of homegrown transparency that outside reporters simply cannot. Ultimately, independent local news coverage is a necessity for keeping local officials and businesses accountable.
Moreover, the replacement of local news with political messaging means that frayed communities are kept in the dark without access to crucial information about where they live. The absence of local, non-political TV news is especially devastating, considering a 2016 Pew Research study found that tuning into their local TV station remains the most common way for people to get news. In order to ensure that the public maintains access to accurate, localized information, these local stations must see their independence restored.
Campaign for Accountability is a nonpartisan, nonprofit watchdog organization that uses research, litigation, and aggressive communications to expose misconduct and malfeasance in public life and hold those who act at the expense of the public good accountable for their actions.