There’s been lots of harrumphing about the decline in local coverage of Congress. Many Washington bureaus have been closed and there are fewer reporters covering congressional delegations.
But is the coverage as weak as the critics suspect?
To find out, students in my Washington in a New Media Age class examined how the local media covered their representatives in Congress last year. Using the Nexis and America’s News databases, the students tallied stories about their lawmakers and analyzed the content.
The results justify the harrumphing. With few exceptions, local coverage of lawmakers is skimpy and superficial. The students found that coverage is particularly anemic for incumbents who are heavily favored — a group that has grown as more districts have been gerrymandered.
The student findings reveal an unexpected side effect of gerrymandering. It hasn’t just skewed the composition of congressional districts, it has become a justification for less news coverage. When a race is likely to be lopsided, editors often conclude they don’t need to cover the race or provide even the most basic coverage of an incumbent. So once a House member has a safe seat, they are likely to receive less scrutiny by the news media.
The average House member was mentioned in 160 news stories in print, online and television outlets, according to the data the students collected. That number sounds pretty respectable at first. But the number varied widely depending whether the seat was considered up for grabs. It was high for a closely contested seat such as Colorado’s 6th District (310 mentions) and low for the least competitive seats, such as the heavily Democratic 11th District in Virginia (51).
The students found little coverage by television stations, although it’s difficult to draw conclusions for all markets because of wide variations in how coverage is archived.
Even when the overall number is high, it doesn’t tell the full story. When the students examined the articles, they found a large portion had little or no discussion of policy or issues. And even when the coverage dealt with issues, it often provided little substance, the students found.
Student Thamina Stoll spent several hours reviewing the coverage of Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif, but came away with only a vague idea about what kind of lawmaker she is. “I still have no clue other than that she enjoys taking pictures for Christmas Cards, isn’t as involved in the immigration debate as she should be and that she appears to stress the importance of education,” Stoll wrote. “How should a voter feel comfortable voting for her again?”
Jordan DeLoatch, a student from the Raleigh-Durham area, found 171 mentions of his representative, Republican George Holding. But much of the coverage was shallow. “There was no fact-checking, no following up and no real attempt to dig deeper into the race,” DeLoatch wrote.
There were a few notable exceptions. The Denver Post and other news organizations in Colorado provided some good enterprise coverage of GOP Rep. Mike Coffman. And despite its national and international focus, the Washington Post did some good coverage of lawmakers in the Washington area.
But more often, the students found shallow reporting and a lack of questioning. News organizations, shrunken by the disruption of the digital age, have scaled back their accountability journalism. Many are more willing to publish a lawmaker’s op-ed than to assign a reporter who will ask critical questions.
Student Allie Eisen, writing about the 11th District in North Carolina around Asheville, found the coverage to be fawning and uncritical. She summed it up by saying that incumbent Republican Mark Meadows “is in the business of writing his own local headlines, and is wildly successful at doing so.”