Study by Rutgers University’s Media + the Public Interest Initiative reveals troubling gaps in news coverage
Do low income communities get less news? New research from Rutgers University suggests that they do. And it’s not just less — a review of the news in communities of different sizes and income levels indicates significant differences in both the quantity and quality of local journalism.
In “Assessing the Health of Local Journalism Ecosystems: A Comparative Analysis of Three New Jersey Communities,” researchers examined the journalistic infrastructure, output, and performance in the New Jersey communities of Newark, New Brunswick, and Morristown.
The research, supported by the Democracy Fund, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, and Knight Foundation, indicates substantial differences in the volume and quality of reporting. Low income communities saw less coverage than higher income neighboring cities.
Why does this matter?
In Newark, with a population of 277,000 and a per capita income of $13,009, there are only 0.55 sources of news for every 10,000 people. Whereas, in New Brunswick, with a population of 55,000 and a per capita income of $16,395, there are 2.18 news sources for every 10,000 people. But the differences are most stark in comparison to Morristown, which has a population of 18,000 and a per capita income of $37,573 but 6.11 news sources for every 10,000 people.
These pronounced differences in the availability of sources of journalism were then reflected in how much journalism was produced within these three communities:
- Morristown residents received 23 times more news stories and 20 times more social media posts from their local journalism sources per 10,000 capita than Newark residents, and 2.5 times more news stories and 3.4 times more social media posts per 10,000 capita than New Brunswick residents.
- New Brunswick residents received 9.3 times more news stories and six times more social media posts per 10,000 capita than Newark residents.
Similar differences across the three communities often persisted when the researchers focused on aspects of the quality of local journalism, such as the extent to which the stories were original (rather than repostings or links to other sources); the extent to which the stories were about the local community; and the extent to which the stories addressed critical information needs, such as education, health, and civic and political life.
While the study only focuses on three communities, these findings signal a critical problem in local journalism, in which lower-income communities may be underserved relative to wealthier communities.
“If journalism and access to information are pillars of self government then these findings suggest those tools of democracy are not being distributed evenly, and that should be cause for concern,” said Prof. Philip Napoli, the study’s lead author.
Researchers analyzed one week of online journalism content across these three communities, focusing on both the home page content and social media (Facebook and Twitter) postings for all television, radio, print, and online journalism sources that could be located within these communities.
“With this project,” Prof. Napoli said, “we are trying to develop a set of metrics that can be used to analyze local journalism in ways that would helps us draw comparisons across communities and help us understand if local journalism is changing in individual communities over time.”
This research is part of the News Measures Research Project, an ongoing effort by Rutgers University’s Media + the Public Interest Initiative, which is located within the School of Communication and Information at Rutgers University’s New Brunswick campus supported by the Democracy Fund and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
“The results are troubling,” said Molly de Aguiar and Josh Stearns, who oversee Dodge’s media and journalism funding. You can’t look at the research and not wonder how this inequality and lack of access to information impacts people’s lives. Prof. Napoli’s study is a step toward documenting and diagnosing the impact of New Jersey’s changing media landscape and a call to action for those of us who care about supporting engaged and informed communities.”
De Aguiar and Stearns are working with Brick City Live in Newark, New Brunswick Today in New Brunswick and Morristown Green in Morristown – as well as journalists and residents in other cities across New Jersey – on a series of creative experiments in community engagement and revenue development with hopes of finding ways to expand access to sustainable, trustworthy news and information for all people.
“What we are learning through our journalism sustainability work is that many of the solutions to closing these gaps exist in the creativity, passion and expertise of the local communities themselves,” the pair said. “Together with people across New Jersey we are trying to rebuild local journalism networks and newsrooms that are rooted in and responsive to the communities they serve.”
The goal of the News Measures Research project is to develop analytical tools for assessing the health of local journalism. More information about the Media + the Public Interest Initiative and the News Measures Research Project can be found at http://mpii.rutgers.edu.