The Colloquium Series Event with Dr. Joshua Darr

The Communication Research Colloquium Series presents the research of faculty within the College of Communication. These events foster discussions on ideas, perspectives, and scholarship in communications between faculty and students. On November 11th, Dr. Joshua Darr presented his research on the impact of moving local newspapers away from national coverage to local news. His findings show that once national issues were dropped from local news, politically engaged people did not feel so different from those with opposing views. The basis of his research focuses on the question, “Is the decline of local news polarizing American politics?” Through his talk, it is clear that local news is not only a vital source of information about your community but it also fosters a sense of togetherness that is lost when the focus shifts to national coverage.

In case you missed this engaging event, here’s a summary and reaction:

Darr’s talk focused on his book, Home Style Opinion: How Local Newspapers Can Slow Polarization, which delves into political polarization in local newspapers by looking at the Palm Desert Sun as an example. When the local newspaper in Palm Springs, CA decided to ban national news from their op-ed page, Dr. Darr and his colleagues conducted research on what that would mean for political polarization. They compared the Ventura County Star — a local newspaper from a nearby town — to the Desert Sun to determine the outcome of leaving national politics off of the op-ed page. When compared, The Sun had an 80% increase in opinion pieces covering local news, while The Star stayed relatively the same with national coverage. As a result, they found that more coverage of local news led to less polarization.

The differences between the Palm Desert Sun and the Ventura County Star expose how localizing newspapers decreases polarization. As more and more people direct their attention towards national news, local newspapers are left to follow suit or die off. Dr. Darr notes that since the start of the pandemic, the U.S. has lost over 90 local newspapers. He points out how national publications like The New York Times benefit from this loss of local papers saying, “I find it ironic that this is being reported by The New York Times, which is doing extremely well despite any reports you may have heard of them failing.” As these small publications fall off, national ones reap the benefits of those readers who are left with no other option.

Prior to the publishing of his book, Dr. Darr researched the impacts of closing local newspapers. In his article published in 2018, he found that when a local newspaper stops production, the votes in those places are party-based. These people are now more likely to vote a “straight-ticket” (vote for all candidates of the same party on a ballot) as opposed to “split-ticket” votes which show a variety of political opinions. These voting trends are strong indicators of citizens becoming more polarized because they are less likely to vote for candidates of different parties. This finding led to the research that drove Dr. Darr’s book.

Not only does moving away from local news cause polarization, but it also causes local papers to lose their identity. Local newspapers traditionally worked as a social and economic foundation to intermingle with the community. Whether it was a local business advertising their store or highlights of community sports teams, local newspapers fostered a sense of community. As national news has become the focal point of local news coverage, these small publications distance themselves from the community-based style of reporting they were founded in.

With op-ed writers being historically white males, Dr. Darr wanted to see if restricting national coverage would diversify the journalists writing for The Sun. They assumed that making the paper more local would potentially make the group of writers more diverse. Although the Palm Desert area has a high population of Hispanic residents, the paper actually had more white writers after the ban. The lack of coverage from Hispanic writers did not reflect the diversity of the Palm Desert community. 

Dr. Darr and his team conducted surveys in the Palm Desert and Ventura areas to answer how polarized citizens are. They used three categories to determine the effect of banning national coverage: respondents who prefer local news, those who are politically knowledgeable, and those that are politically engaged. Across each treatment, readers of The Desert Sun slowed down polarization while The Ventura Star had increased polarization. Thus, the researchers found that banning national news “slows affective and social polarization.”

The talk was truly eye-opening for all attendees. As most of us are COM students, this shift from local to national coverage has been unfolding in front of us for years. Dr. Darr’s research brings to light the importance of local news coverage in creating a community of diverse thought that we can help foster as communicators. 

To watch the full event, click here.

Ryan Sullivan, Staff Writer

Ryan Sullivan is a senior in CAS studying Political Science and minoring in Public Relations. This is his second semester volunteering with The COMmunicator and he hopes to pursue a career in governmental PR upon graduating. He is currently a Social Media intern with the FirstNet Authority, an independent agency within the U.S. Department of Commerce. In his free time, Ryan loves to go thrifting, read mystery novels, and try new vegan recipes.

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