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Guest opinion - Jan. 6

Country is enduring an ‘infodemic’

As the anniversary approaches of the Jan. 6th storming of the nation’s Capitol, and as the omicron-related spike in Covid cases spreads nationwide, we will be hearing a lot in the coming weeks about disinformation.

Mounting evidence suggests that disinformation played a critical role in both the ongoing pandemic and in ongoing support among some Americans for the attack on the capitol.

Disinformation is a serious blight on our country’s ability to agree on basic facts and to conduct ourselves like a rational society. But it isn’t the only information problem we face, and trying to tame the disinformation tide isn’t the only solution for what ails us as a nation.

News and information systems are as critical to civic health as clean air and water – and common sense protections against the spread of viruses – are to public health. Just as our bodies need a healthy physical environment, our civic body needs a healthy news and information environment.

Because democracies (however imperfect) ultimately rest on what the public believes and will act upon, the quality of information that flows through a society is a key to its democratic health.

The growing disinformation “infodemic” poses a threat to our collective civic health. But too often, focusing on disinformation turns our attention away from its opposite: The flow of high quality, fact-based, inclusive, and trusted information.

If we want to create the conditions for a better-informed, civically healthier public, we need to look not only at how to control disinformation but also at how to strengthen sources of high-quality information.

And here, local news can play a critical role.

Recent research suggests, for example, that when local newspapers wither, that information gap is filled with people consuming more national news and social media. Because national news tends to be more partisan and conflict-filled, and social media prioritizes emotional responses, readers can then feel more angry or alienated, and their sense of connection to what’s happening in their own local community can fade. Moreover, newspaper closures can lead to declines in split-ticket voting, meaning that polarization intensifies as local news supply declines.

One real-world experiment showed that when a local newspaper filled its opinion pages with discussion of local instead of national issues, political polarization in the community decreased.

This dynamic suggests that it’s not only an increasing supply of disinformation that ails us, but also a decreasing supply of locally-grounded, trustworthy news. The Pew Research Center found that especially for people living in rural communities, news that is truly focused on the local community is in short supply.

Trust is crucial here.

Public distrust of the news media has increased significantly in recent years. The quality news supply issue is not just a problem of local news outlets struggling to produce more with less, as advertisers have moved to other platforms and newsroom resources have shriveled. It is also a problem with the kinds of content local news offers. Peoples’ daily news habits have changed, with fewer people dutifully reading the daily newspaper news no matter its quality. These days with more choices of media available, when people do not see the realities of their own communities portrayed engagingly, accurately and inclusively, they won’t tune in.

In that context, it is more important than ever for local journalism to learn how to build trust with communities – which means learning to listen more carefully and respond more thoughtfully and inclusively to local concerns.

While it would be great to eliminate all disinformation, that is as unlikely as wiping out the coronavirus. But while we may have to learn to live with endemic disinformation, we must also find ways to increase the supply of its antidote: quality, trusted news. While we should continue to find ways to clamp down on disinformation, we also need to find ways to boost the supply of quality local news that communities trust.

Regina G. Lawrence (PhD, University of Washington) is associate dean for Portland in the School of Journalism and Communication, research director of the Agora Journalism Center at the University of Oregon, and editor of the journal Political Communication. She studies and teaches in the areas of media and politics and journalism innovation


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