How local TV can push viewers to the political right

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One media company's local TV stations have political influence over their viewers. (AP Photo/Scott Sonner)

Living in an area with a television news station owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group, the U.S.'s second-largest local TV company, makes viewers less likely to vote for Democratic presidential candidates and lowers their approval of Democratic presidents, according to new research.

The paper, published April 14 in Political Communication, adds to researchers' understanding of how the insertion of partisan national political coverage into local TV news broadcasts can influence viewers. 

"When Sinclair buys a station, they substitute local news for national news and unbiased coverage for more pro-Republican coverage," said author Matthew Levendusky, a professor of political science and economics at the University of Pennsylvania who has written extensively about partisan media. 

Based on TV station ownership and viewership data from 2008 to 2018, as well as opinion data from Gallup and Cooperative Congressional Election Study, Levendusky found that Sinclair purchasing a station in a given market was associated with a reduction of then-President Barack Obama's approval rating in that market by about 1%. That means that Sinclair convinced about 6% of viewers to disapprove of Obama, Levendusky concluded.

Levendusky's paper is the latest to focus on Sinclair in particular as the company's influence has grown in recent years. Sinclair has purchased dozens of local television stations over the past decade, and now owns 193 stations that reach roughly 40% of Americans. 

In addition to airing locally produced news content, Sinclair requires its stations to air "must-run" segments that feature right-wing commentators such as Sebastian Gorka and Boris Epshteyn. In 2018, the company required local anchors across the country to read an identical script criticizing "the troubling trend of irresponsible, one-sided news stories plaguing our country."

Sinclair stations cover national politics about 25% more than other local news stations, according to a 2019 American Political Science Review paper by Gregory Martin and Joshua McCrain that Levendusky said influenced his decision to write his paper. Martin and McCrain also quantitatively showed what some media researchers had suspected — that Sinclair purchases led to coverage that was significantly more ideologically right-wing. 

Now, Levendusky's research has built on Martin and McCrain's work by showing that substituting local news for partisan national coverage has public opinion and electoral consequences. 

"If you live in one of these areas where Sinclair has a station, you're less likely to vote for the Democratic candidate for president," Levendusky said. 

Sinclair did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

Levendusky conducted the analysis in part by comparing changes in opinion in markets where Sinclair already had stations in 2008 to markets where the company purchased stations during the study period, as well as to markets Sinclair never entered. He tested lagged and leading effects, showing that his results were not based on a "selection effect" through which Sinclair simply purchased stations in conservative areas.  

The effect on viewers' opinions was roughly the same size as a local newspaper endorsement and about half that of Fox News being introduced, Levendusky found. 

"It is not simply the case that only outlets like Fox News or MSNBC persuade viewers — so can local news, at least with certain types of content," he wrote. 

Interestingly, Levendusky did not find any significant effect on viewers' opinions of down-ballot candidates for House, Senate or gubernatorial races. This is potentially because Sinclair's "must-run" segments focused on the presidency rather than local politicians. These segments could air all over the country, making them more financially viable to produce. 

"It's easy to produce a story that says, 'Obama's doing a bad job, Trump's doing a good job, Biden's doing a bad job,'" said Levendusky. 

The study underscores why local media is important for democracy, according to Levendusky. 

"Local news content is really important because local TV and local newspapers are really some of the only sources people have for getting information about politics in their community, in their state, in their congressional district," he said. "It's really easy to find stories about national topics. … It's much harder to get stories about local news, local politics." 

From 2008 to 2019, U.S. employment at U.S. newspapers fell from 71,000 to 35,000, according to the Pew Research Center. This decline has further accelerated during the coronavirus pandemic. 

"Without [local] information in the information ecosystem, voters don't really have what they need to hold politicians and political actors accountable," said Levendusky.

The paper, "How does local TV news change viewers' attitudes? The case of Sinclair Broadcasting," published April 14 in Political Communication, was authored by Matthew Levendusky, University of Pennsylvania. 

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