Local news volume does not increase pro-social behaviors during COVID-19

During this pandemic, there are countless voices urging Americans to engage in the kind of civic behaviors that keep us all safe, like social distancing and frequent hand washing. These voices come at the national, state, and local level. But which ones are actually getting through, making it more likely that Americans will comply with the recommendations?

Previous research has found that people are more likely to engage in civic behaviors—like voting, recycling, or when living through a pandemic, wearing a face covering—when their local newspaper includes coverage of these activities. Local news has also been shown to decrease political polarization at a community level. However, a new study from doctoral candidate Sean Fischer suggests that this phenomenon may have its limits. 

Person wearing face mask and latex gloves stands in an empty subway car holding a newspaper.

Fischer’s work suggests that some issues are so polarized at a national level that local news coverage has little to no influence. Specifically, he investigated individuals’ willingness to stay at home in response to the coronavirus pandemic, both before and after statewide stay at home orders were implemented. Surprisingly, he found that local newspaper coverage did not meaningfully affect whether citizens followed social distancing guidelines or not.

“Coronavirus policies are different depending on where you live, and in many places, the guidelines and regulations are changing daily,” says Fischer. “So local news should be playing a key role in providing communities with the information they need to stay safe. I thought this would mean that people with access to a local newspaper would be more likely to stay at home and not view this crisis along partisan lines. But the data doesn’t support that.”

Read more at Annenberg School for Communication.