Local TV news shows collectively attract 25 million nightly viewers, far more than national cable programs such as Fox News and MSNBC. And that’s been attractive to major media conglomerates, which have been snapping up local TV stations in recent years. As of 2016, five big companies controlled 37% of these stations.
Now, a new study shows that the trend toward conglomerate ownership is causing local stations to focus more on national politics at the expense of local politics. At least in the case of the nation’s biggest local TV conglomerate, a corporate takeover also made stations slant more to the right politically — even as the stations lost viewers.
Coauthored by Gregory J. Martin at Stanford Graduate School of Business and Joshua McCrain at Emory University, the study focused on the impact of one conglomerate in particular: Sinclair Broadcast Group, which owns 191 stations that reach almost 40% of the U.S. population.
Since 1990, Sinclair has been on a buying binge that took it from being a bit player to the nation’s biggest owner of local stations. It also has attracted attention for its conservative political leaning. During the 2016 election campaign, for example, Sinclair stations aired 15 “exclusive” interviews with Donald Trump. In 2017, it hired a former Trump White House official as its chief political analyst and made his commentaries must-run on all stations. Last year, all of its anchors were ordered to read an identical script that echoed Trump’s rhetoric about “fake news”.
Martin says Sinclair offered a good opportunity to examine how local news changes after a conglomerate takes control, and whether a shift in political leanings is a result of changing audience tastes or the conglomerate’s whims.
“One possible explanation for the media slant is that stations are just catering to what audiences want,” says Martin. “The alternative explanation is that owners are imposing their views. What we show is that ownership preferences have an influence on content.”
Scrutinizing the News
Martin and McCrain intensively analyzed the local news coverage of 743 stations nationwide — virtually every station with a local news program — over a nine-month period in 2017. Because Sinclair acquired 14 stations that year, the researchers were able to conduct before-and-after comparisons of the newly acquired stations. In addition, they compared news coverage of all Sinclair stations nationwide with their non-Sinclair rivals.
The first thing they found was that the newly acquired Sinclair stations increased the time allocated to national politics by about 25%. That increase came largely at the expense of local political news. Existing Sinclair stations also allocated about 25% more time than their rivals to national politics.
The likely reason for that shift is financial, the researchers say. Each local story has to be produced by a local station and requires its own reporter, camera crew, and editor. A national story, by contrast, can be produced from just one source and sent to an unlimited number of stations. For a conglomerate with hundreds of outlets, national news offers huge cost savings.
The researchers’ second finding was that local stations did indeed show a rightward political shift after Sinclair acquired them. That finding was based on analyzing the language of every national news segment aired on local stations nationwide. The researchers tabulated the number of politically loaded phrases used mainly by members of one party — “death tax” for Republicans versus “estate tax” for Democrats; or “illegal aliens” versus “undocumented immigrants.” Sure enough, existing Sinclair stations used more right-leaning phrases than their rivals, and the newly acquired stations used more than they had previously.
Martin says there isn’t a clear business explanation for the rightward political shift. In fact, the new Sinclair stations actually lost an average of 600 viewers in the months after they were acquired. Nationwide, Sinclair local news shows attracted an average of 7,000 fewer households than their rivals in the same markets.
Too Much Influence?
Regardless of the business motivations, Martin says the study raises new questions about the political power of media companies. For one thing, a reduction in local political news could make it harder for people to be informed about their own elected governments.
Beyond that, the study suggests that media conglomerates could sway national elections.
“There is a lot of evidence from other research that the political content of news affects election outcomes,” Martin says. “So the evidence that we present, which shows that the tastes of media owners affect local news content, means the owners of media outlets have a lot of political power. That’s something that regulators of media should take into account.”