November 3, 2016

Civic Engagement Strongly Tied to Local News Habits

1. Regular local voting, community attachment strongly linked to news habits

Overall, those most engaged in civic life tend to also be the most tapped into local news, but an examination of five aspects of civic life and their relationships to three areas of local news habits finds that attachment to one’s community and regular voting in local elections connect most strongly to local news habits. (Knowing all of one’s neighbors, another measure of how rooted one is in their community, often does not have quite as strong a relationship with local news habits as does community attachment.)

News habits of the highly attached

Only a minority of U.S. adults – about one-in-five (19%) – feel highly attached to their communities, while 47% feel somewhat attached and 33% feel little or no sense of attachment. But these highly attached individuals represent a core slice of those who give a lot of attention to local news.

At the broadest level, their overall interest in news stands out. Roughly six-in-ten (59%) of the highly attached follow local news very closely, roughly twice that of the unattached (27%) and more than the somewhat attached (34%).1 A similar gap emerges in the level of interest in neighborhood news.

The highly attached are much more likely than the less attached to very closely follow four of the five locally relevant topics asked about: people and events in their local communities, crime, business and finance, and government and politics. In one striking example, 41% of the highly attached follow news about people and events in their communities very closely, while just 15% of the somewhat attached and 6% of the unattached do so. The one exception is sports, where roughly equal shares of each group follow the topic very closely. Altogether, nearly half of the highly attached (46%) follow at least two of these locally relevant news topics very closely, compared with 28% of the somewhat attached and 20% of the unattached.

These highly attached community members also tend to get local news across a wider array of news platforms. Fully 44% of the highly attached regularly use at least three of the seven types of sources asked about, from local newspapers to local radio to local blogs, outpacing the 30% of the somewhat attached and 17% of the unattached who do so. This greater tendency for news consumption often reflects a heavier reliance on individual sources: They are nearly three times as likely as the unattached (45% compared with 17%) to get community news from their local newspapers at least several times a week. And about six-in-ten (63%) regularly get news from local TV, more than the 53% of the somewhat attached and 40% of the unattached. One exception here is social networking sites, where equally low shares of the highly attached, somewhat attached and the unattached regularly get local news – a trend that carries through to most other aspects of civic life discussed in this report as well.

The highly attached are not just more likely to consume local news regularly, but are also more likely to have their voices heard in the news cycle. Roughly a third (34%) of the highly attached have spoken with or been interviewed by local journalists, compared with about a quarter (26%) of the somewhat attached and a fifth (20%) of the unattached.

The highly attached are also more positive in their views of the local media. About a third (35%) think the local media do a good job informing them of important local news — a view shared by 20% of the somewhat attached and just 13% of the unattached. Similarly, the highly attached are more likely than the somewhat attached and the unattached to trust the information their local media provide and to hold the view that local media are in touch with their communities.

News habits of local voters

Another segment of the public to demonstrate a consistently stronger connection to local news is registered voters who say they always vote in local elections.

This group (consisting of 27% of U.S. adults) is much more likely to follow both local and neighborhood news than those who do not always vote in local elections.2 Roughly half of these regular local voters (52%) follow local news very closely, while just three-in-ten who don’t always vote in local elections do so. They are also more likely to follow at least two of the five locally relevant news topics asked about.

People who always vote in local elections are also more likely than those who don’t to use multiple source types for local news. Nearly four-in-ten regular voters (38%) turn to at least three source types several times a week, compared with 24% who don’t always vote locally. Regular voters’ pathway of choice is local TV, which is used several times a week or more by 63% of this group. Getting local news through social media, local newsletters or local blogs are the three source types where there is no difference between regular local voters and those who do not always vote locally. Regular local voters are also more likely to have spoken with or been interviewed by local journalists (35% vs. 22%).

When it comes to attitudes, regular local voters are more likely than those who don’t always vote locally to view the local media as trustworthy, to feel they do a good job and to think they’re in touch with their local communities.

The study also examined this connection between voting and local news habits based on respondents’ observed voting history, using data taken from public records (the “voter file”) to construct a measure of how regularly they actually show up to the polls. However, survey responses were deemed more robust for a variety of reasons (which are discussed in Appendix A). Most prominently, these records provide reliable data about voting in federal elections but not local elections. Given the local focus of this study, self-reported data was the best available option when it came to voting behavior.

Unlike local voting, regularly voting in national elections alone does not relate to stronger local news habits. In fact, Americans who always vote in national elections but not always in local elections are no more likely than those who don’t always vote in either local or national elections to follow local news very closely. They are also no more likely to regularly use most source types for local news or to highly trust or approve of local media organizations. (National-only voters do show stronger national news habits compared with those who don’t vote in either type of election regularly – though, even here, those who vote regularly in both local and national elections generally show the strongest national news habits.)

Neighborliness and local news habits

Another sign of how connected one is to their local community is the extent to which a person knows their neighbors. About a quarter of U.S. adults (23%) report knowing all their neighbors’ names. This group is distinct from the highly attached – about four-in-ten overlap (41% of those who know all their neighbors are also highly attached to their communities). But these neighborly residents also stand out from their counterparts for having stronger local news habits across all three types of measures: interest, intake and attitudes. However, this trait often shows less strong relationships with local news habits than community attachment does, though it largely shows similarly strong relationships with local news habits as does regular local voting.

“Neighborly” Americans are more tuned in to local and neighborhood news. Roughly half (52%) follow local news very closely, compared with about a third (32%) of both those who know some or none of their neighbors. People who know all their neighbors’ names are also more likely to closely follow at least two locally relevant news topics (42% compared with 25% of those who know some and 23% who know none). They are also more likely to regularly use at least three source types for local news (39%, vs. 26% of those who know some and 23% who know none). Three-in-ten of those who know all their neighbors’ names have spoken with or been interviewed by local journalists — a greater share than among those who know none of their neighbors (17%).

Finally, views of local media stand out among this group as well. Nearly three-in-ten (28%) who know all their neighbors’ names trust their local media organizations a lot — the same share who think their local media are doing a very good job. Fully 71% feel the local media are in touch with their local communities.

  1. The unattached consist of those who say they are “not very” attached (25%) or “not at all” attached (8%) to their local communities.
  2. Regular local voters are those who are registered to vote and say they always vote in local elections. Those who don’t always vote in local elections includes those who say they vote less than always, those who say they never vote and those who are not registered to vote.