November 3, 2016

Civic Engagement Strongly Tied to Local News Habits

2. Participation in civic life and community rating show weaker ties to local news habits

While community attachment and local voting show a consistent relationship with local news habits, other types of qualities that one might expect to be associated with these habits show more mixed relationships. How active people are in local groups and political activities, for example, corresponds primarily with their interest in and intake of local news, not their attitudes toward local media organizations. And how highly respondents rate their local communities corresponds primarily with their attitudes about the local news media.

News habits of the civically active

To measure participation at the local level, the study asked about activity in seven different types of civic groups, from sports leagues to church groups to charity organizations, and six political activities respondents may have done in their local areas in the past year, including attending city council meetings, starting or participating in group discussions, or contacting elected officials.3

Overall, roughly a quarter (27%) of respondents report a high level of civic activity, that is, they participate in at least three of these 13 activities. (These findings echo those from our 2015 study of the news environments in three metropolitan areas in the U.S.)

This quarter of the population who is highly active stands out from both the somewhat active (those who have engaged in one or two of the 13 activities or groups) and the inactive (those who engaged in none) for more closely following local news, but not for having more positive attitudes toward local media, suggesting a link between active civic behavior and active news behavior.

Nearly four-in-ten (37%) of the highly active follow two or more locally relevant news topics very closely, compared with substantially less (26%) of both the somewhat active and the inactive. And four-in-ten closely follow neighborhood news, while about three-in-ten of the somewhat active (29%) and inactive (32%) do so.

The relationship is mixed for following local news. While the highly active are more likely to do so than the somewhat active (42% vs. 33%), they are not more likely than the inactive (36%).

The highly active also report higher levels of local news intake. When it comes to specific sources, they are more likely than those who are less active to get community news on three or more source types, with nearly four-in-ten (38%) of the highly active doing so, compared with a quarter of both the somewhat active and the inactive.

On all source types asked about except local TV, the highly active get local news more often than the less active. For example, about four-in-ten of the highly active (42%) get local news at least several times a week on local radio, compared with less of the somewhat and inactive (34% and 31%, respectively). A similar share of the highly active (41%) get local news via word of mouth, higher than the roughly quarter of the somewhat and inactive (27% each). And just over a third (36%) gets local news from local newspapers, outpacing the 27% of the somewhat active and 24% of the not active who do so. And while only a small percentage overall get local news from local digital-only source types, the highly active stand out for higher use of social networking sites for community news (16%, compared to 10% of the somewhat active and 7% of the inactive) as well as local blogs (9%, compared to 3% of the somewhat active and 5% of the inactive).

The highly active are also more than twice as likely to have spoken to local journalists (40%) than the inactive (16%), while roughly a quarter of the somewhat active have done so (23%).

Despite greater news intake, however, the highly active do not have more positive attitudes about their local news media. Similar proportions of the highly active and less active trust local news organizations and feel that these organizations do a very good job keeping them informed, though a greater share of the highly active feel that the local media are in touch with their local communities.

News habits of those highly satisfied with their communities

Just as taking part in local political and civic groups is closely associated with greater interest in and intake of local news, positive civic attitudes closely connect with positive attitudes about local news.

Those who rate their communities as excellent have notably more positive attitudes about the local news media than those who rate their communities less positively. (There are other aspects of community involvement, including perceptions of how engaged and how trustworthy other community members are; these indicators largely demonstrate a similar pattern to what we see with community rating.) Overall, roughly three-in-ten (29%) rate their communities as excellent.

Nearly eight-in-ten (77%) of these “high raters,” for example, feel that local media are in touch with their communities, compared with 38% of those who rate their communities as only fair or poor (64% of those who rate their communities as “good” believe local media are in touch.)

Those with the most positive view of their communities are also more likely to trust the information provided by local news organizations (27%, compared with 22% of moderate raters and 14% of poor raters) and to believe local news organizations do a good job (26%, compared with 19% of those who rate their communities moderately and 15% of those who rate them poorly).

But there is only one platform from which high raters are more likely to get community news: radio. For the rest of the platforms asked about, high raters do not differ from others in their usage. They are also no more likely to get community news from three or more source types than those who rate their communities less positively.

Similarly, while high raters are slightly more likely than others to show interest in local and neighborhood news, it is a considerably smaller gap than for the other civic qualities studied in this report. About four-in-ten high raters follow local news very closely (42%), which is higher than among moderate raters (34%) but not poor raters (35%).

When it comes to the locally relevant news topics people follow, a similar pattern emerges. High raters (35%) are more likely than moderate (27%) or low raters (24%) to closely follow at least two items, but again, the gap between these groups is smaller than when other civic qualities are measured, such as community attachment or local voting.

  1. The civic items ask about membership in community groups or neighborhood associations, church groups, sports leagues (for themselves or their children), social groups (such as book clubs), parent groups (such as the PTA), youth groups (such as the Scouts or 4-H club), or charitable groups. The political items ask whether, in the last year, the respondents have done any of the following in their local communities: attended public hearings (such as city council), attended neighborhood meetings, attended rallies or protests, participated in discussion groups on local issues (offline or online), contacted elected officials (offline or online), or attended ethnic or cultural meetings.