Citizens’ Local Political Knowledge Threatened By New Media

[April 12, 2010]

As new digital media replace traditional sources of news, the public’s knowledge of local affairs may be undermined.

This result headlines a new study by Lee Shaker, a researcher at Princeton University, that examines the effect of increased media choice upon citizens’ local and national political knowledge. The article, “Citizens’ Local Political Knowledge and the Role of Media Access”, is available in the current issue of Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly (winter 2009). Based on data from a 2007 survey of 1000 Philadelphia residents, a clear, negative relationship between having access to cable TV or satellite radio and citizens’ local political knowledge is depicted in the piece. A similar relationship does not materialize between new media access and national political knowledge. These results reinforce the fears voiced by many regarding the decline of local media – especially newspapers.

“Digital media clearly expand access to national political information, but they have yet to yield much additional local news,” Shaker says. “At the same time, traditional sources of local news are forced into a tough competition with new media for citizens’ attention. It appears that lower levels of local political knowledge may be one consequence of our changing media environments.”

Given so many new media options, most of which are non-local, it makes sense that citizens will shift some of their time and attention away from local news. “At some point, time spent consuming new non-local media must inevitably detract from time spent with local news,” Shaker says. “Americans need to be knowledgeable about their communities to effectively participate in local politics. Consequently, any evidence that suggests that citizens may become less informed about local affairs is concerning.”

In addition to examining the relationship between media choice and political knowledge, the article also reveals several other differences regarding who knows about local and national politics. For example, scholars have consistently found white, male citizens to be more knowledgeable about national politics than non-white or female citizens. The Philadelphia study replicated this national level finding – but did not find significant differences in local political knowledge across race or gender. “Local affairs are somewhat overlooked by scholars and these results may surprise people who normally focus on national politics,” says Shaker.

The article, drawn from a larger project that examined the intersection of media, technology, and local politics, depicts results from just one city. It is, however, a unique project that suggests that citizens and scholars alike should take a closer look at communication in America’s communities.

“Americans are being pulled in many opposing directions today,” Shaker adds. “On one hand, new media increasingly allows them to feel like citizens of the world. On the other, pressure is mounting to reduce their carbon footprints, eat local, and support small businesses. The danger is that citizens may become distracted by national, or even international, issues beyond their reach and fail to address local concerns that they could impact.”

CONTACT: Lee Shaker, (646) 450-7533, lshaker@princeton.edu, www.leeshaker.com

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