The Stories Not Told: Understanding the Gap in Local Accountability News Coverage

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Hamilton, James T

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This study examines the policy question, what levels of government should address the market failures relating to public affairs coverage and accountability journalism at the local level? The toolbox of possible policy interventions is a known quantity, but existing research has not established at what level of government those policies may have the most impact, and where the civic need for information policy intervention is greatest. This requires an examination of the gap between the optimal level of accountability coverage and the coverage produced. While it is not possible to do a full cost-benefit analysis, we must examine the difference between the coverage that is produced and that which is the socially optimal amount. Which stories go untold? This study examines four communities at the periphery of the Raleigh-Durham media market: Mebane, Siler City, Apex, and Garner, employing a multi-phase qualitative analytical process to form hypotheses about which community characteristics and related factors contribute to a gap between the current level of local accountability news coverage and the ideal level, in an economic sense. The first phase is site selection, using descriptive statistics that include socioeconomics, population, and distance from Raleigh (center of the local media market). The second phase involves asking officials with an insider's view of relevant issues provides insight into what that level of coverage would be, how it compares to the level produced, and how the answers to those questions differ according to community characteristics. The third phase is an assessment of information provision using stakeholder interviews, analysis of available media, and relevant public policies. The study finds that in communities at the periphery of the media market: broadcast and metro outlets fail to provide consistent coverage of municipal and local affairs; weekly print newspapers are the main sources of local news; information exchange and debate between stakeholders tends to be informal; blogs and other digital media are virtually non-existent and do not provide significant outlet for news or public debate; and media outlets have little interest in online media, though public officials show an interest in improving their governments' websites. The most significant issues facing a community can and should be drilled down to specific topics that relate to specific places, people, and decisions facing local government. The narrative thread of any given topic extends from the community's past into a set of connected decisions in the present day, and it becomes increasingly complex the more bodies of governmental jurisdiction are involved. That context is what enables a reader to understand the decision from multiple points of view and to investigate further, should he or she desire to do so. Quantitative analysis of news coverage should provide metrics that establish some sense of depth and quality as well as quantity of stories in various outlets. Those measures of quality could be used as an outcome variable, while community characteristic could serve as independent variables. Based on the findings in this paper, the most relevant independent variables would likely pertain to population size, distance from the center of the media market, educational attainment, household income, and the percentage of residents who speak Spanish at home. The preliminary hypothesis of this study is that such analysis would find lower quantity and quality of local news coverage in municipalities with lower educational attainment, lower income, further distance from the center of the market, and higher percentage of Spanish speakers.





Morgan, Fiona (2011). The Stories Not Told: Understanding the Gap in Local Accountability News Coverage. Master's project, Duke University. Retrieved from

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