'Is Trump a Product of Local TV News?'

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Donald Trump has soaked up an astronomical amount of free media over the past year—$2 billion worth as long ago as March and more than $31 million worth from Sean Hannity alone—but an Atlantic reader, Eric, turns our attention local. He wonders if there’s a significant contrast between national and local news when it comes to crime coverage and whether that difference is driving support for Trump:

Something came to mind a few nights ago while I was watching the presidential debates: Is Trump a product of local TV news? I was struck and saw, for the first time, how disconnected the world that Donald Trump was describing seemed from reality in America—not just on the coasts, but everywhere. It got me thinking about his comments in the past regarding minority communities, crime, and social breakdown as a whole. Those don’t reflect the America you’d read in the mainstream media, hear on public radio, or see on network news broadcasts, but they do sound vaguely like one non-partisan news source that I’m familiar with: the local TV news.

I don’t watch much local news, and neither do most people in know, so I decided to look into it a little further. What I discovered was that 57 percent of American adults often get their news through television, with 46 percent saying that’s through local TV news. Considering that local news has become, for the most part, weather, traffic, and sports (40 percent of broadcasts, according to Pew) with crime reports (17 percent) and accidents/disasters (13 percent) in between, it strikes me as understandable that Trump’s “law and order” message has some resonance. After all, if the main source of news is local TV, then nearly a third of the time not dedicated to traffic, weather, and sports is about crime in the local community. Even if crime weren’t rising, the ubiquity of its coverage would give the impression that it’s getting worse.

Then there is the long running issue with racial bias in local news coverage. The go-to study on the topic is by J.H. Lipschultz and it’s called “Race and Local Television News Crime Coverage.” In it, Lipschultz mentions how much local news can shape and reinforce our attitudes about race, but one passage really stuck out to me:

[T]he reinforcement of stereotypical assumptions about race may be driven by local TV news coverage: “... crime coverage may be reinforcing hegemony by reinforcing inscribed ideas about who commits crime (people of color), where most crimes occur (communities of color), and where crimes should not occur (White, affluent neighborhoods)”

If coverage like this is still the norm (the study is from 2003), then is it any wonder that Trump’s claims about African-Americans “shot walking down the street” sounds right to some voters?

For many, local TV crime stories are their only insight into communities of color. It’s rare that the news covers the positive things going on there—with the exception of the occasional school or park opening—because they’re crunched for airtime and it’s not what viewers want. And since minority communities are generally viewed as unsafe by whites (another product of local TV crime coverage, according to Lipschultz), most haven’t spent any time there. For the near-majority of Americans whose primary news source is local TV news, crime, murder, and black go together so often that anything negative that’s said about the state of African-American communities seems plausible.

Now perhaps I’m way off base here (and I hope I am!) and I’m making a connection that doesn’t really exist, but I was hoping to posit a theory and get your readers’ thoughts.

If you have any strong ones, please drop us a note: hello@theatlantic.com. Update from reader Max:

I am finding myself nodding along with your reader who talks through Trumpism as a product of local news coverage. In The Culture of Fear, Dr. Barry Glassner talks about how, as violent crime dropped, local news coverage of violent crime increased, creating a perception among views that crime was getting worse, not better. As local news competed for ratings in dimensions beyond the joviality of their sportsman, the accuracy of their weather, and the attractiveness or tenure of their anchorpersons, they could not advertise about their propensity to lead with what bleeds, but they could certainly make the stories with blood and fire lead ahead of the coverage of the local government or consumer complaints.

Because of the nature of televised news, being a visual medium, it excels at spot news, things that happen at a time, at a place, on the spot. It is considerably less good, especially on a nightly turnaround schedule, at covering stories that have less compelling visuals and that require deeper analysis. As such, those who get their news from their local 5 or 6 o’clock news are pumped full of fear, whether it be fear of crime or fear of weather. Those who read newspapers—a declining group—get a more detailed story, and those who read news magazines might get more perspective on more complicated stories than nightly local news can provide.

As such, I don’t really watch televised news at all. I have enough anxiety in my life without a daily half hour or hour of straight fear being pumped into my house.

I’m reminded of the 2014 film Nightcrawler, a disturbingly dark portrait of a bootstrapped cameraman (played by Jake Gyllenhaal in his best performance yet) who burrows his way into the center of the local news world of L.A. by increasingly sensationalizing and ultimately orchestrating the violent episodes he records. His sociopathic stunts are bad enough, but the desperation of the deeply cynical news director (played by Rene Russo) turns into one of the most vivid critiques of the news business I’ve seen yet. It comes down to the ratings, of course, even after she fully discovers how twisted he is. My colleague Chris Orr wrote a reliably sharp review of the film, and here’s the trailer, and here’s a representative scene:

Another reader, Steve, finds that local news—at least the station he watches—engages in false equivalence and he said/she said coverage when it comes to the presidential election:

When I saw the headline of Trump being a product of local TV news, what I thought was going to follow was be something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. It wasn’t. Instead it ended up hitting on a different topic ... that I've also been thinking a lot about lately. I’ll try to be brief, but I wanted to comment on both:

The first is the topic of local TV news, which is something I think gets overlooked in all the political media commentary. People watching the Sunday morning shows, or reading The Atlantic, usually have some formed opinion about the people/issues.  No one watches the Sunday morning talking heads because they don’t know how they’re going to vote. They do so to reaffirm what they already believe by panel experts. (Or to get really mad at ridiculous “political opinions” getting airtime.) There was something that someone said—I don’t remember who/where—about the Matt Lauer debacle and why it mattered: most people get their political news from watered-down sources. In the big picture, the things said on Sunday mornings are much less important than than the things said on weekday mornings, tucked in-between the sports and weather.

I love my WGN Morning News in Chicago. But it’s everything from eye-rolling to stomach-churning in how much false equivalence there is every morning: there’s always a Trump controversy, and then there’s equal airtime for a Clinton controversy. Every day. And the Trump controversies are just about always something he actually said or something he actually did—lots of things that would normally disqualify someone from being president (see Trump Time Capsule).

But the Clinton controversies are usually along the lines of: someone from the Trump camp said she was corrupt; someone from the Trump camp said there’s questions about the emails; someone from the Trump camp says she’s unfit to president. Every morning, equal airtime, unequal controversies.

While much has been said about “the media” trying too hard appear fair—being too soft on Trump and too hard on Clinton in the process—I feel like that critique has been aimed at the big media/news institutions. I know it has not trickled down to the local players, where most people get their news, and I fear that it won’t in this election.

The second thing that reader Eric hits on here is trying to claim why Trump describes African-American communities as he does, and why this perception of these communities has become such a talking point in his campaign. It’s because he’s racist and he’s speaking to racists. Black communities are dangerous and not like ours.  Black people are dangerous and not like us. If only some law and order went in there to clean them up, it would make them more like us. He’s not projecting what society tells us; he’s giving his audience “the problem” they want to hear is a problem. This goes hand-in-hand with his “minority outreach” really being aimed at suburban white voters, which much has already been said about.

Disagree with either of these readers? Let us know.