What We Can Learn from People in News Deserts

Communities with limited access to local news – news deserts – are vulnerable to risks including low voting rates and greater polarization. In spite of the obvious problems, a new study finds that some people in news deserts are still finding ways to stay informed.

The Center for Media Engagement talked to people living in areas defined as news deserts to find out where they’re getting local information. The study found that when local newspapers are limited or unavailable, people can sometimes turn to other sources, like locally-focused Facebook pages.

Perception Makes a Difference

Nearly half of the people who participated in the study didn’t think they lived in a news desert and felt they had adequate access to information through local radio, newspapers, and social media. This belief might make a big difference. People who didn’t think their community was a news desert were not only more likely to feel informed about their community, but they actually were more knowledgeable about many local issues when tested on the topics.

Additionally, people who felt that their community was socially cohesive – that they trusted, got along with, and were willing to help neighbors – also felt more informed and were more informed about local issues than people who didn’t feel a sense of social cohesion.

What Kind of Information is Shared and from Where?

The study looked at Facebook posts on pages that share local information. Nearly 20% of the posts were re-shared from other local sources like school districts, utility providers, or local government entities. About 20% also encouraged people to take action by doing something like reading the full article on another site, following emergency protocols, attending an event, or participating in civic behavior like voting or wearing a mask.

The posts included a variety of traditional news topics – including health, politics, crime, and sports – as well as topics focused on community-building and connection. Examples of these types of posts included event notices, historical information, lost or found items or pets, announcements and well-wishes (such as birthday or wedding), and instructional or how-to posts.

While misinformation is often a concern on social media platforms like Facebook, the study found that misinformation was shared in less than 1% of posts on Facebook pages people used for local news.

What Can Newsrooms Take Away?

While news deserts undeniably pose a problem, there is something to be learned from the way people in news deserts think about access to local information. Given that social cohesion proved important, newsrooms should look to build a relationship with local communities that emphasizes trust, belonging, and willingness to help. This can include sharing stories that showcase local people, traditions, and events and show the community in a positive light. The findings also show that organizations and individuals producing information for people in news deserts may benefit from training and greater connections to the broader journalism community.