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‘News Deserts’ Could Impact Midterm Elections

Limited options for accurate local news can make voters more vulnerable to misinformation.

October 31, 2022

Local news is besieged, and voters are paying the price. The number of newspapers across the nation is plummeting, a trend accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Ahead of the midterm elections, the Brennan Center has found that millions of eligible voters have severely limited options for reputable local news sources or live in “news deserts” — counties with no local newspaper.

As local newspapers and digital news sites vanish, voters are left more vulnerable to misinformation. When local newspapers close, websites disguised as local news that host partisan and advertorial content move in to fill the vacuum in some places. Americans in news deserts tend to be older and poorer and have less reliable broadband service, forcing many to rely on their mobile phones — and, frequently, their social media apps.

Overall, people increasingly get their local news from social media — including from Facebook Local groups and Nextdoor — where many navigate spaces awash in misinformation. There is also evidence that political polarization increases in counties after local newspapers shutter, a phenomenon that may in turn help amplify misinformation.

Elections make the stakes of such problems clear. Local news is essential to civic education given that election administration in the United States is highly decentralized. Voting rules and procedures can vary from state to state or county to county. As such, voters need local information on poll sites, drop boxes, ballot design, poll observers, candidates, and local election offices.

Without reputable local newspapers, voters may be more likely to encounter election information that is wrong or does not apply where they live. And their confidence in elections may be undermined as local election issues become fast fodder for misinformation that fuels false narratives about the political process.

This year, there is a greater need for voter education due to the unprecedented wave of new restrictive voting laws spurred on by lies about a “stolen” presidential election. Since 2020, 20 states have enacted at least 33 laws making it harder to vote in the midterms. In some places, they are likely to spur new conditions such as poll worker shortages and increased challenges to voter eligibility.

Using data from the Census Bureau and Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, the Brennan Center estimates that over 2.7 million citizens of voting age in more than 200 counties nationwide live in news deserts. Across the country, more than 50 million voting-age citizens are estimated to live in counties at risk of becoming news deserts, with only one local newspaper.

In states that have enacted restrictive voting laws since 2020, we estimate that more than 1.3 million American adults in 99 counties live in news deserts. Additionally, more than 27 million voting-age citizens live in 1,003 counties that are news deserts or at risk of becoming news deserts in states that have passed one or more restrictive voting laws that will be fully or partially in effect for the midterms. These Americans are in counties with one local newspaper or none at all.

The consequences of the decline of local newspapers are particularly stark for voters in battleground states, including Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wisconsin. Several battleground states saw the most viral misinformation about voting by mail ahead of the 2020 election, according to research by media insights company Zignal Labs.

We estimate that over 700,000 voting-age citizens across 68 counties in the 11 battleground states named above live in news deserts. More than 17.8 million American adults across these battleground states are estimated to live in 532 counties that are news deserts or at risk of becoming news deserts.

Between late 2019 and mid-2022, more than 360 American newspapers disappeared. On average, more than two newspapers fold each week. A large portion of the local newspapers that are left are struggling. Many of the nation’s surviving local newspapers have become what the University of North Carolina Hussman School of Journalism and Media dubbed “ghost newspapers — mere shells of their former selves.” Many are atrophying as they lay off and reduce staff. Some have been acquired by companies backed by political campaigns and operatives.

Citizens lose a news source with unique value when local newspapers close. While voters may have access to statewide newspapers and television and radio, local newspapers traditionally pay more attention to local civic issues. A Duke University study of local media outlets and more than 16,000 news stories found that local newspaper coverage was substantially more likely to address critical information needs than coverage from its television and radio counterparts. Local outlets are also more trusted. According to a Gallup survey, Americans were far less likely to believe that local news contributed to election misinformation in 2020 than to believe that social media and cable television news spurred such misinformation.

The disappearance of local news sources creates gaps that exacerbate misinformation risks. Political operatives exploit news deserts to fill the voids with propaganda-filled websites that front as independent news. Without timely news coverage, any occasional, corrected mistakes by county officials and out-of-context videos taken at poll sites can metastasize into disinformation campaigns. Unfamiliar conditions — such as poll worker shortages and election result delays — can help produce misinformation and fuel conspiracies that undermine trust in elections. News outlets that swiftly cover local matters with accurate context can help stem the spread of election falsehoods.

Voters whose first or primary language is not English face additional risks as they are typically underserved by the news media. U.S. elections receive less coverage by Spanish-language television stations than their English-language counterparts, and several English-language news companies have shuttered Spanish-language initiatives in recent years.

Proactive steps can be taken to support voters. In the lead-up to the midterms, state election officials, regional news outlets, and nonpartisan voting organizations should take special care to educate people on voting issues in places that have limited local news options. Election officials in news deserts can establish communication channels with election reporters at state newspapers to inform them about voting procedures, potential voting process glitches, and election misinformation in their counties. Newsroom networks that create partnerships between national, statewide, regional, and local papers to bolster coverage for underserved communities can devote resources to news deserts ahead of Election Day. Solutions like these are vital to ensure that Americans can exercise their right to vote.

Note on methodology: In determining these numbers, we relied on a data set compiled by the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and published on June 29, 2022, to identify counties with no or limited local newspapers. To estimate numbers of citizens of voting age in 2022, we used American Community Survey data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau reflecting counties’ citizen voting age population (CVAP) from two time points to estimate county-specific CVAP growth rates. We then applied the growth rates to estimate counties’ CVAP for 2022.