Most of the politics voters see are national and presidential. Local television news can help Americans learn about state and local politics, but it is threatened by nationalization. Daniel Moskowitz finds that local TV news helps citizens learn more about their governors and senators, encouraging split-ticket voting. But Joshua McCrain finds that Sinclair broadcasting group has bought up local stations, increasing coverage of national politics and moving rightward. Local news coverage is in decline but offers one of the major remaining bulwarks against nationalization and polarization.
Matt Grossmann: Can local TV news keep politics local? This week on The Science of Politics. For the Niskanen Center, I’m Matt Grossman. Even though state and local decisions effect Americans everyday lives and livelihoods, most of the politics they see are national and elections are interpreted mostly through the president. So, how can Americans learn about state and local politics?
One of the major sources of information is local television news but it, too, is threatened by nationalization. This week I talked to Daniel Moskowitz at the University of Chicago about his recent American Political Science Review article, Local News, Information and the Nationalization of US Elections. He finds that local TV news helps citizens learn more about their governors and senators, encouraging split-ticket voting. But nationalization is decreasing this influence.
I also talked to Joshua McCrain of Michigan State and soon to be the University of Utah about his American Political Science Review article with Gregory Martin, Local News and National Politics. He finds that Sinclair Broadcasting Group has bought up local stations, increasing coverage of national politics over local politics and moving it, ideologically rightward. They both say local news coverage is in decline but offers one of the major remaining boworks against nationalization and polarization.
Moskowitz was trying to understand the role of media in nationalization of our politics.
Daniel Moskowitz: The paper really broadly set out to investigate whether the decline of local news sources, which is a trend that we’ve observed over the past couple decades, contributes to what political scientists are calling the nationalization of elections. And what we mean when we say the nationalization of elections is that the election outcomes across various state and local offices are increasingly tied to the presidential election outcome. So, we can observe this tightening of that relationship between the presidential election outcome and the state and local election outcomes at the constituency level, so state or district, at the county level, precinct level. But then the individual level phenomenon that’s driving these aggregate trends is actually what we call straight ticket or straight party voting.
When voters vote for the same party across multiple offices, mechanically that’s going to drive this aggregate relationship between presidential vote share and the vote shares of other offices. At the same time that we’ve had this period of electoral nationalization, there’s been a huge upheaval in the news environment. In particular, the decline of traditional local sources of news, especially newspapers.
The paper is an attempt to get at whether this nationalization of the news helps to explain the nationalization of elections. In the paper, I focus on local television news to get at this broader question of the role of the media and changes in the media environment in the nationalization of elections. The empirical strategy that I use is the idiosyncratic nature of US television media markets. Because of exclusivity contracts between networks and stations and some FCC rules, these media market boundaries basically determine, for the most part, the stations to which a viewer has access. The boundaries are drawn based on where television signals traveled over the air in the 1950s.
So, they’re kind of haphazardly drawn, they cross state boundaries. And that’s a really important feature of these media market boundaries that this band states because it means that while most voters live in an in-state media market … that is, a media market comprised mostly of residents from their own state … some voters are sort of stuck in these media markets comprised of residents from neighboring state.
For instance, if we look at a couple of counties along the western Ohio border with Indiana, Van Wert county and Mercer county are adjacent to one another but Mercer county is located in the Dayton, Ohio media market while Van Wert county is located in the Ft. Wayne media market. And the Dayton media market is entirely in-state. The market only contains Ohio residents while the vast majority of the Ft. Wayne media market is comprised of Indiana residents. 93% of that market’s population are residents of Indiana and only seven percent of the market resides in Ohio. As a result, the residents of Van Wert county get a lot of local television news about Indiana’s office holders and not very much local news about Ohio office holders whereas Mercer county residents get lots of coverage about Ohio’s office holders.
And as it turns out, access to this relevant local news coverage has really important implications on voter knowledge and voter behavior at the ballot box. The hypothesis I set out to test at the beginning of the paper is whether greater access to information about candidates down ballot from the presidential race allows voters to assess these candidates and these races separately from their judgment at the top of the ticket when they’re voting in the presidential race. And what I find is that voters residing in in-state markets have greater knowledge about their senators and governor across a variety of measures of [inaudible 00:05:44] that are available in surveys.
In addition, voters residing in these in-state markets are about two to three percentage points more likely to cast a split president/senator ticket and they’re about four to five percentage points more likely to cast a president/governor ticket. Given that the overall rate of split-ticket voting for these offices is about eight to nine percent during the time period that I’m looking at, these are quite large effects. It’s about 25% of the baseline rate for senate races and about 50% of the baseline rate for governor races.
Matt Grossmann: McCrain was investigating what happens when a national conservative conglomerate, Sinclair Broadcasting, buys up stations.
Joshua McCrain: We find that Sinclair, which is this big conglomerate media ownership group that owns a bunch of local news stations across the country … We find that when they buy a station what happens is the station that they buy spends a lot more time on national politics and a lot less time on local politics relative to other stations in the same media market. So, we’re comparing stations in, for instance, Lansing, Michigan to other stations in Lansing, Michigan and not a station in Michigan to a station in New York City, which is important for a lot of reasons.
We also find that the national politics coverage that Sinclair pushes out to their stations is slanted more to the right. Again, relative to other stations in the same media market. However, we find that even in that conservative media market, Sinclair-owned stations shift even further to the right. You can think of this as them becoming similar to Fox News, which we also show.
And then finally, we show that there is now viewership response; that there’s no increase in viewership when Sinclair makes these changes. And if anything, there’s a negative viewership response so they actually lose viewers after Sinclair acquires one of these stations and make those changes. And we think there’s a lot of really important implications, as far as general questions that you as a voter might care about.
Matt Grossmann: Both research projects start from broader concerns about nationalization. Moskowitz wanted to explain how incumbents lost their advantages.
Daniel Moskowitz: So, I started just trying to hypothesize why incumbency advantage might have declined more recently. In other words, why incumbents seem to have greater difficulty actually separating themselves from their party so that they can perform better than a generic non-incumbent candidate on the ballot would. And the kind of thing that … The potential explanation that came to mind was the role of the media and changes in the media environment, which might make it more difficult for candidates to convey to voters that they’re different and voters to ascertain differences between candidates and their parties.
And there has been a lot of political science and economics research on the effect of changes in the media marketplace, in particular, the focus has tended to be on the new entrants into the marketplace. So, a lot of papers on the effect of cable news, social media; those kinds of things. But I think there’s been quite a bit less emphasis on the consequences of decline of the traditional sources of local news. There are important exceptions to that, of course, but I wanted to investigate whether there might be a link between the decline of traditional sources of local news and this decline in incumbency advantage, which is really a consequence of the nationalization of elections.
Matt Grossmann: McCrain says nationalization of politics and news reinforce one another.
Joshua McCrain: The nationalization of news is clearly both a product of and a additional driver of the broader nationalization. The demand for national content is something that is not isolated from these broader trends, but I think it’s also straightforward to suggest that it’s continuing to drive the nationalization of politics when, again, we have fewer outlets covering local stuff. So, any demand that still exists for local content is getting essentially washed out by just the lack of coverage.
I think, yeah … I don’t think it’s possible to disentangle what’s causing what here, but I do think it’s definitely true that these economics, especially in local TV but, again, this is relevant for newspapers, are exacerbating it or potentially speeding it up. And some of this is actually a product of the regulatory environment. And you could imagine regulatory changes or revisions to previous regulatory regimes that would potentially produce incentives for media producers to spend more time on local politics.
That’s not going to solve these problems but it might slow it down or it might perhaps facilitate some lower-level demand that currently exists for local coverage by producing economic incentives for the actual media outlets to cover it.
Matt Grossmann: Indeed, Moskowitz says nationalization and polarization seem to go together.
Daniel Moskowitz: It certainly seems to be the case.
Matt Grossmann: … polarization seem to go together.
Daniel Moskowitz: It certainly seems to be the case that the nationalization of elections and partisan polarization are sort of inextricably linked and they certainly reinforce one another in the sense that with nationalized elections, candidates have little reason to even try to separate themselves from their party because they don’t kind of get that electoral reward for doing so if voters are just casting straight ticket votes anyway. At the same time, when candidates within the same party aren’t trying to separate themselves from their party and they kind of adopt nearly identical policy positions, voters have less reason to cast a split to get that ballot and defect. While we don’t know which one’s causing what or to what degree one is causing the other versus the other causing the other, I think we have a pretty strong sense that these things are very much intertwined and that they both do kind of reinforce one another. And so it’s tough to imagine in the near term what could either disrupt nationalization or polarization.
Matt Grossmann: [inaudible 00:12:14] finds local news is disappearing overall.
Joshua McCrain: What we are going to see less and less of, and the baseline for this was already pretty low, is any coverage about the state legislature, city stuff, school boards, this level of politics that actually takes some people with on the ground knowledge that are going to do investigative reporting, have their relationships, and actually it’s costly to do this, this is going to be decreasing and decreasing. It’s already going away in newspapers. And in fact, some states don’t even really have state level reporters anymore. I have a friend who has been a reporter for the Atlanta Journal Constitution for I think almost two decades, and he used to have essentially one beat, which was state-level investigative reporting about the legislature. And now he’s, I think he told me last year, he’s got nine different beats. So he’s now forced to spend his time covering all of these things. And that’s a trend that’s going to be ongoing. And I don’t think that that’s going to change necessarily. And that’s going to have really bad implications for accountability across the board if people just don’t know what’s going on.
Matt Grossmann: But local TV news is still the most widely watched.
Joshua McCrain: What we find regularly early from pollsters such as Pew is that local news, especially local TV news is, is regularly one of the most trusted sources of news. It has viewership more than the aggregate total of cable news viewers. So back when we wrote this paper, it was around aggregate 25 million viewers per night and across people that consume. It’s generally, again, like I said, one of the most trusted sources of local news. The majority of the content in a local news broadcast is not about politics necessarily. It’s about the kind of stuff you would expect, crime, it’s about local sports. It’s a lot of weather coverage. So that kind of predominates the coverage, which is why it’s fascinating that we find such big changes to the content when Sinclair buys these stations where they’ll shift the relative amount of time spent on local news. For instance, they decrease the amount of time spend on local news by 25% relative to, again, other stations in the same market.
So local news is very kind of homogenous in a lot of ways across the country. It’s what you would expect. However, that’s what makes Sinclair’s business model kind of interesting is that they started to push out these, these nationally produced segments that are very similar to what you would find on Fox News. And so now local stations would start showing these very strong opinion style segments with very strong political slant, which is different than really we had seen previously in the local news market.
Matt Grossmann: Moscowitz agrees local news is overall in decline, but still reaches a lot of viewers.
Daniel Moskowitz: News consumption has become substantially more nationalized simply because of the decreasing availability of local sources of news. Newspaper circulation has declined by over 40% from the early 90s. Advertising revenues for newspapers have plummeted. In turn, newspapers have reduced their staff substantially. Over the past decade, the audience for late night, local television newscasts have declined by about 30%, which is a substantial decline, but it’s actually relatively complicated to assess the degree of this decline in local TV news consumption because there are actually more hours of local TV news on the air than there used to be. So even if the audience for a specific time slot and the local late night time slot is traditionally the most watched time slot for local TV news. So even if that audience for that specific time slot has declined, it’s not clear how much overall consumption has declined if at all, just because there’s so many more hours of local television news on the air than there used to be.
In the paper, I cite some data from Nielsen, which is a company that measures television audiences, as well as other media audience and reach. And they note that in the first quarter of 2017, about 40% of individuals ages 25 to 54 watched local TV news in an average week and that these viewers watched on average about two and a half hours in that week. So local TV news, despite some declines in their audiences, still have a really broad reach. One thing that is worth considering is that there likely is a relationship in the quality of the local television news coverage and the presence or the strength of the presence of other local media in that market because television stations often amplify the reporting of, for instance, newspapers, and they rely on newspapers and other sources of media to do a lot of the original reporting that they then amplify.
Matt Grossmann: State lines allow Moscow it’s to understand the effects of local TV news that crosses boundaries.
Daniel Moskowitz: The focus, I guess, on the out of state media markets isn’t because I’m interested in those residents per se. It’s just because they offer the composition of these media markets and whether they’re comprised of residents of a neighboring state versus residents of that same state gives kind of a nice source of variation in the emphasis that stations in that market place on each state’s office holders and the level of coverage they provide for each state. So the key sort of strategy in the paper is to compare voters in the same statewide electoral setting. So I use something called state by year fixed effects, which allows this within state and within year comparison, which can hold constant the candidates, the electoral rules, just as many features of that electoral context as possible.
But one thing that’s different across these residents of different media markets is how much coverage about their governor and their senators based on whether they live in an in-state or out of state media market. About 20% of counties are located in an out of state media market in which less than 50% of the market’s residents are in state. And about 43 states have at least one county located in out of state market. So these are pretty widespread, even if the vast majority of the population does not live in and out of state media market, just kind of by definition. Those voters who reside in the media markets that are almost entirely out of state get almost no coverage of their state’s office holders. They get very little coverage. In comparison, residents of an in-state market are expected to get about an additional 1.5 mentions of their governor per hour of coverage and they get about an additional 0.5 mentions of each of their senators per hour of coverage.
So these are non-negligible differences, but there’s just a greater level of coverage of governors and senators, which maybe isn’t too surprising if you’re someone who watches local television news. You definitely notice higher levels of coverage about the governor than you do about senators.
Matt Grossmann: Being in an in-state media market gives you a lot more state information.
Daniel Moskowitz: Being located in an in-state market increases the ability of voters to correctly recall the party of their senator by about nine percentage points, and their governor by about 11 percentage points, which are large and important differences between these residents. But one might be suspicious that it could just be that people who reside in these out of state media markets are different in certain ways than residents of in-state markets. And these differences, perhaps, for instance, they maybe have differences in educational attainment or other demographic characteristics, and that could explain the differences in knowledge. But when I look at whether access to in-state television is associated with greater national political knowledge, for instance, knowing which party controls the House and which party controls the Senate, I don’t observe differences across various measures of national knowledge. And that seems to indicate that the differences in knowledge about senators and governors are then likely due to in-state television rather than differences between residents of in-state markets and out of state markets.
Matt Grossmann: And it does not seem to be an effect of television advertising.
Daniel Moskowitz: A big threat to inference in the paper is that the people who reside in these in-state markets not only get access to more relevant local television news about their state’s office holders, but they also get exposed to a lot more television campaign ads run by these candidates in these races, because it’s not a very efficient use of campaign funds to air ads in media markets in which 90% plus of the market resides in a state that isn’t voting in your race. So they tend to air their ads in in-state markets because they’re reaching more voters doing that and it’s a smarter use of their campaign funds to do so. But that means that there’s another difference in the sort of media exposure that isn’t due to news, but is instead due to television ads. And that could explain the differences both in voter knowledge- [inaudible 00:22:00], and that could explain the differences both in voter knowledge and in split ticket voting that I observed.
So what I do is I try to look at differences in voter knowledge for office holders who aren’t running for reelection concurrent to the survey being administered for the data that I’m using. So I look at senators and governors who ran for election in a previous election cycle, and as a result, they are not likely to be airing ads on television. And what I observe is a similar size effect of in-state television on voter knowledge, which is strongly suggestive that the differences in voter knowledge are due to local television news rather than campaign ads since there aren’t campaign ads being aired during that period of time.
Matt Grossmann: Nationalization of politics may not be done yet, but local news is an important break.
Daniel Moskowitz: If we look at kind of over time trends in ticket splitting from the ANES because the ANES kind of gives us the longest time trend in which we can measure split ticket voting for president/senator and president/House, those rates of split ticket voting were above 20% in the 1970s and ’80s. And they started to really decline in the ’90s, and now in 2012 and 2016, they’re at about 8% or 9%. that’s based on the ANES as well as the CCS. They yield pretty similar estimates with the rate of split ticket voting.
These are obviously, like 8% to 9% is a pretty low rate. Could they go a bit lower? Probably, but there isn’t too much room for them to go lower. With that said, the thing to keep in mind is that these are the overall rates, and so there are certainly really important exceptions to the kind of low split ticket voting.
So for instance, in 2012, Obama, obviously the Democratic candidate for president, got about 35% of the vote in West Virginia, and Joe Manchin, the Democratic candidate for the US Senate, got 61% of the vote, which implies an enormous rate of ticket splitting that occurred in West Virginia.
And that’s obviously one of the more extreme examples, but there are several others indicating that, at the very least, it’s not impossible for an elected official to kind of have their own personal brand that’s distinct from the party brand, even in our present very nationalized context. We can also think about the handful of Republican governors in blue states that are quite popular, like Charlie Baker and Phil Scott and Larry Hogan.
My paper was based on data from 2012 and 2016 in which we were in this kind of highly nationalized setting. And so I think even in that setting, that I observed these effects based on kind of exposure to information and in a hyper polarized context, that there are these effects of information on voter behavior. It tells us that like it’s still going to be important going forward, that voters still process information that they can get and they still use that to make decisions at the ballot box.
So I think the story will continue and it’s just going to sort of depend on the degree to which local sources of news remain sufficiently prevalent so that voters can get information.
Matt Grossmann: You might think nationalization is demanded by viewers, but McCrane says that’s only part of the story.
Joshua McCrain: We accept that there is a demand driven amount of national politics coverage. There’s a demand driven amount of slant. And what I mean by demand is that the consumers in a media market want it, so then the media producers, these stations produce it to match what the consumers want. When Sinclair was asked about our research, this is what they said essentially, is that, “Look, we aren’t doing anything. And if anything is changing, it’s because we’re filling in this gap of what viewers want.”
So that’s certainly possible that that’s the case and we don’t discount that, however, again, we still find that relative to stations in the same media market, we’re still seeing these shifts. So it can’t purely be explained by demand unless you are going to believe that every station that’s in a media market that had a station acquired by Sinclair was just not realizing these things. And then, even if that was to be the explanation, we would also expect to see a viewership response, which we don’t see.
So I don’t think you can explain this purely by nationalization and demand. However, that being said, the political content of these stations across the country is strongly covering national politics, especially during this era that we’re studying which was dominated by Trump, and that’s what people were interested in, but you do see some variation across the country in how much time is spent on these things. A lot of it’s predicted by whether or not there are other things going on, such as natural disasters. So we saw a lot of stuff on the fire coverage and hurricanes, stuff like that, crime. So there is variation, but it’s hard to disentangle this with these broader trends towards nationalization that we see in American politics.
Matt Grossmann: He does see economic incentives to nationalize local TV news.
Joshua McCrain: So the economics of local news have changed substantially in the past couple of decades. This is definitely true in local television news, as well as newspapers. So essentially what’s become easier, and this was sort of accelerated during the Trump administration when they had a very friendly FCC, is that it became easier and more effective for these big nationwide conglomerate owners of which Sinclair is as a perfect example, but there are others, to essentially buy up stations across the country and then centralize the production of some content and then push it out to their affiliates.
So the idea here is that if a media group owns a bunch of stations in a bunch of different areas in the country, it’s going to be costly for them all to do local reporting, which involves a lot of on the ground work, it involves actual reporters instead of just on-air personalities.
So what Sinclair has done is that they’ve basically cut a lot of that local investigative reporting and replaced it with this centrally produced content, which is clearly a cost saving mechanic, right? It’s just much more cost efficient to do this. And again, I want to emphasize that this was something that was facilitated by changes to FCC rules that were specifically designed in favor of these big conglomerate owners to do these sorts of things, which in the past would have either been prohibited or been much more costly.
So just for an example, the FCC got rid of this rule called the Home Studio Rule, which said that a local news station had to have a physical broadcast building in the media market in which they exist. So the FCC got rid of that rule saying this was sort of anachronistic in the era of internet when you can be anywhere and get local news on anything. And maybe there’s some truth to that, maybe there’s not, but again, it’s one of the many things that’s been kind of a more friendly regulatory environment for these big media conglomerates.
So I want to circle back though to what we find vis-a-vis these economic rationale. So for Sinclair, you would have to believe that the reason that they’re willing to make these changes, right, to the content, especially again, relative to other stations in the same media market, is they think that they can make money off of these changes. And probably the biggest indicator that they are generating more revenue is an increase in viewership. And this is what they’ve, again, themselves suggested in interviews about our research is that this is what’s going on, is they’re getting these viewers in who want this kind of content.
We find zero viewership response, and if anything, we find negative viewership in response to a Sinclair acquisition of a channel. So this is incoherent with this demand driven explanation. If they’re losing viewers when they make these changes, then what’s going on? I mean, there are two explanations. One is what I just talked about, where there’s a cost saving mechanic of centralizing production which makes it cheaper to do these things, and that kind of covers the difference between the viewers that they’re losing.
Another one is that, and this is partly a feasible explanation because Sinclair is so overtly political, they’re a very obviously right wing organization and their owners are strong Republican supporters, so another explanation is that they’re willing to eat some of the financial costs of making these changes in order to gain some sort of persuasion and ability to change political outcomes through the style of their content in the same sort of way that Fox News is.
Matt Grossmann: Local news still matters, but it’s difficult to make sustainable.
Joshua McCrain: There’s a lot of assumed demand that’s sort of latent and out there for local news, right? And the idea is that the business model has just not sort of adapted to making it a financial thing that can exist and sort of produce these public goods that we want out of local news, right? There’s all of this great research that shows that there’s all these negative effects when local news goes away, there’s less accountability, people have less knowledge about politics. I think you’re talking to Dan Moskowitz who’s shown a lot of this. Eric Peterson at Texas A&M has a lot of great research on what happens when there are cuts to local newspapers.
I think what underlies this is this question of whether or not we can even really have a profitable local news industry that’s not propped up by essentially nationalized political content and it actually invests in reporting.
I think that there is some demand for local news. In general, we see people kind of finding it in these other outlets, especially the internet, such as Facebook, Next Door, those sorts of things, but that’s not really news. It’s not reporting. That’s just events that happen, so you lose the context.
Matt Grossmann: Conglomerates like Sinclair might matter for political behavior and information as well.
Joshua McCrain: I want to emphasize though that Sinclair here is not necessarily unique, especially recently. So what we think is unique about Sinclair is sort of what Greg and I find, in that there’s a slant, there’s a change in slant to the coverage, but the business model of Sinclair of nationalizing this production of content and then distributing it to local affiliates, it’s not obvious that, or it shouldn’t be the case that that’s unique. That’s a very straightforward economic incentive.
So there’s a couple pieces of research that I think generalize a little bit beyond Sinclair in this realm. So the [inaudible 00:32:41] paper is a little bit more about Sinclair, in which he actually finds that a Sinclair acquisition of a media market sort of has these, I would say moderate to minor persuasive effects on people’s perceptions of Barack Obama, but it doesn’t really find that they have any sort of effects on people’s behavior beyond that, especially in the-
So on people’s behavior, beyond that, especially in the national political universe, which I think makes sense. Like the people who are going to be persuaded to vote for or against Trump, I don’t, based on local news content, I think that’s a very, very marginal person.
So I think that makes a lot of sense. There’s another paper that shows that by Nicola Mastrorocco and one of his coauthors that shows that Sinclair acquisition, because they cover less local crime, that this actually affects the crime clearance rates in a municipality that’s within a district, or within a media market and which Sinclair buys a station.
So there’s a lot of evidence like this too, where the content and the informational content of broadcasts is actually going to affect behavior. So what Greg and I are working on now is the idea is it’s like it’s not going to be national political behavior. It’s not going to be whether or not people are going to vote Democrat or Republican, or for Trump or against Trump. It’s going to be the effect of Sinclair, or less knowledge about local politics and more knowledge about national politics. It’s going to be the effect that you see in local elections.
So these are already low salience elections. The accountability mechanism between voters and local politicians is pretty weak as it is when you don’t know who these people are. So what we’re looking at, and what we’re finding is that, in these local elections, when any of the major conglomerate owners, not just Sinclair, such as Tribune or a Media General, there’s a number of other ones, that voters have less knowledge about local politics. And this affects their behavior.
So what you see is, in these local races, the races become less competitive. There’s a bigger incumbency advantage, those sorts of effects. And this is coherent with existing research on media and accountability.
And I think this is probably going to be the biggest source of new research on the changing media economics, is these informational effects, these informational mechanisms, especially in areas where there’s already really low knowledge about who’s running and what these people are doing in office.
Matt Grossmann: Moscowitz agrees that rules changes may move us toward more nationalized news.
Daniel Moskowitz: The FCC removed what’s called the Main Studio Rule in 2017, which used to require every station to have a physical studio in the community where the license was issued, or near the community where the license was issued. The FCC also in effect raised the cap on the national audience reach of a single owner. And they reduced restrictions on media consolidation within the same market area.
And all of these things make it easier for a single entity to basically buy up lots of stations across the country and pipe in nationalized programming to stations around the country. To the extent that these trends continue, and that would suggest that the local aspect of local television news will not really be distinct from national programming. And we might not observe the patterns that I observe in the paper going forward.
Matt Grossmann: Increasing nationalized partisan media might change elite and public behavior, says McCrane.
Joshua McCrain: I think there’s a feedback loop here. There sort of has to be. I think there’s a good amount of evidence from a large body of research and media in politics that once people become attuned to partisan political media, like this is what they try to select into, especially congenial media, so media that aligns with their prior beliefs.
So I think the Sinclair case is an interesting one here where, if people are watching local news, maybe they don’t necessarily have strong priors for partisan media, but now they’re exposed to very politicized media almost overnight when Sinclair buys these stations.
So now they might select more and more into watching that. And you start this feedback loop where they then pursue more partisan outlets, et cetera. And then I think this must feed into elite behavior.
So people in these media markets, when this is what they are now being told, they need to worry about. In the Sinclair case, for instance, illegal immigration or whatever political story is arguably not salient to the local context is now something that they’re just being shown nightly. This is something that must feed into elite behavior. This is what state level local politicians are now getting calls about.
And this is something that they know that their voters care about, so they must be incentivized to talk about it, or to create stories about it, to introduce bills in the state legislature about something that is insane from an actual local level. Like I’m a North Carolinian so I think of the Sharia Law Bill, stuff like that, where it’s clearly not relevant, but it’s something that’s easy to get attention to.
And I think this would be a really interesting avenue for additional academic research is to actually look at the behavior of locally elected leaders or state officials around the changes in the media environment.
Matt Grossmann: Moscowitz is now looking at whether local TV news helps ideological voting.
Daniel Moskowitz: I have another object that I’m working on related to local television news. And it’s actually trying to get at whether voters are better able to engage in ideological voting based on whether they have access to in-state television. And by that, I mean, are voters more likely to reward office holders for engaging in moderate behavior in office and punish officers for engaging in extreme behavior in office?
So some of that, when I presented this paper or gotten feedback on the paper that we talked about today, a lot of people had questions about, okay, split ticket voting is interesting, and it helps to explain this interesting phenomenon of the nationalization of elections, but what are the implications for accountability, and voting, and whether voters are holding officials accountable for the way they’re behaving in office in a way that we think makes sense with different models of politics that we have.
And so, this next project, hopefully, will get at that in a way that will interest scholars and help us understand better the way voters are engaged in the split ticket voting, and whether it matches up with the behavior of office holders during their previous term.
Matt Grossmann: And McCrane is working on additional work on media and politics.
Joshua McCrain: We’re almost done with this paper on the effects in local elections, especially state legislative elections. We’re working on, myself and Eugene Kim, and [inaudible 00:39:47] working on a paper on dynamic media bias and cable news broadcast.
So for instance, when Fox becomes more conservative over time, how does MSNBC respond? Do they try to become more liberal to capture the audience that’s pushed away, or do they shift slightly more to the right as well to mirror this latent demand? So that’s something that we’re really interested in.
The other thing I’m really interested in, and I’ve started some conversations on working on this with some people is, what is the political behavior response to Sinclair ownership? So when people are now exposed to Sinclair, are they more prone to develop attitudes of racial animus or a xenophobia, because they’re now imagine you been shown these nationally produced broadcasts in your local channel about how you got these caravans at the border who are going to come threaten your livelihood and your health.
And you must imagine that that has effects on people’s attitudes towards these thing, when there was no other way they were really going to view this, unless they were already predisposed to those positions because they were already consuming Breitbart or Fox news.
So those are some of the big things that I’m interested in. I also really think that this research that Dan is doing on the political knowledge in general, the economics of local news, is something that we really just need to learn more about.
Matt Grossmann: There’s a lot more to learn. The science of politics is available biweekly from the Niskanen Center and part of the Democracy Group Network. I’m your host, Matt Grossman.
If you liked this discussion, you should check out Daniel’s interview on the nationalized elections episode of the Not Another Politics Podcast from the University of Chicago and our own previous episode Does Nationalize Media Mean the Death of Local Politics with Daniel Hopkins and Carrie Maletia.
For now, thanks to Joshua McCrane and Daniel Moscowitz for joining me. Please check out local news information and the nationalization of US elections and local news and national politics. And then listen in next time.