Two Emory political scientists found that local news stations’ coverage shifted to more conservative takes and focused more on national coverage after they were bought by Sinclair Broadcast Group. The shift in coverage could exacerbate mass polarization and suppress voter turnout in elections, Assistant Professor of Political Science Gregory Martin and doctoral candidate Joshua McCrain (23G) said. The two analyzed the degree of ideological slant of local news stations across the United States and determined Sinclair-owned stations had a significant slant to the right.
Sinclair is the largest owner of local media television stations in the U.S. and recently attracted controversy after Deadspin compiled video clips of news anchors of local affiliates owned by Sinclair reading the same script on air about “fake news.” The study said that Sinclair was “notable” because its stations have clearly identifiable partisan messaging and “the company’s political orientation leans strongly to the right, with politics coverage frequently compared to that of the Fox News Channel.”
Sinclair acquired 14 local news stations from Bonten Media Group in September 2017 and is attempting to acquire Tribune Media. Thirty-eight percent of U.S. households have access to a Sinclair-owned news station but the percentage would increase to 72 percent if the Tribune Media deal goes through, McCrain said.
Martin and McCrain analyzed the changes in viewership and content before and after Sinclair purchased the stations in 2017 and also compared Sinclair’s content to other news outlets.
“We [found] a small but negative effect on viewership … and then, we [found] that they spend a lot less time on local politics and a lot more time on national politics,” McCrain said. “We also [found] that the slant increases to the right in the stations to a pretty significant degree.”
This increased coverage of national politics could strengthen viewers’ partisanship, according to McCrain. Additionally, after Sinclair acquired a station, it would focus less on local stories and more on national coverage, which could lead to decreased voter turnout in local elections and less accountability of local officials, according to the study.
“People who consume partisan media — so you can imagine Fox News, MSNBC or even internet sources of partisan media … become more partisan,” McCrain said. “If people are, one, less informed about local politics and, two, the information they have about politics is more right-leaning, then presumably it would affect both turnout in local elections.”
The emergence of highly partisan news could deepen the issue of mass polarization, the study said.
Martin and McCrain analyzed the Congressional Record to determine the slant of topics covered in the media and create an “ideology score” for the stations.
“There’s a set of phrases that we identify in the Congressional Record as being indicative of partisanship, essentially,” Martin said. “These are things like ‘death tax,’ a phrase Republicans use a lot.”
The researchers characterized their findings as worrisome and expressed concern about the growing size of broadcasters.
“Local TV is one of the few remaining viable sources of information on local politics,” Martin said. “I think it’s worrisome they seem to be diverting coverage away from local issues.”
McCrain said he finds Sinclair’s behavior to be particularly alarming because of the influence it has on the message and tone of news coverage.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is reviewing Sinclair’s attempted purchase of Tribune Media. Sinclair has reached the maximum number of stations it can own, according to FCC policies. Sinclair owns or operates 173 broadcast television stations in 81 markets and Tribune owns or operates 41 broadcast television stations in 33 markets, according to its FCC application.
Martin and McCrain contended that the proposed acquisition of Tribune Media is likely financially motivated. Consolidation of coverage is cost-effective, according to Martin.
“Essentially producing the same segments and running them everywhere … that consolidation incentive sort of changes what gets covered on local news,” Martin said.
McCrain said he was first drawn to issues surrounding the broadcaster following a July 2017 “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” segment in which he addressed the Deadspin video. He brought the idea to Martin, and they discovered that no research had been conducted concerning local broadcast news. Martin said it seemed like a “nice sort of natural experiment.”
“There was this group of stations — there was like 14 of them [stations], and they were scattered across the country in different places, and they were all going to get acquired at the same time,” Martin said. “So we had this nice opportunity to look at the changes in the content that occurred at those stations relative to other stations in the same market that weren’t acquired.”