Even in times of tension between journalism organizations and their consumers, there has almost always been one guiding light through the murkiness: local news.
Local news has a bias that’s different from almost any other way to cover stories–a bias towards serving their specific audience. They have the capacity to go anywhere within their jurisdictions to bring community-driven and locale-specific stories to audiences in a given area.
They can be corny or even far-fetched, but almost anyone who watches or produces local news will tell you that’s part of its charm. A Pew Research Center poll from 2016 shows that news consumers trust local news more than national outlets.
However, that model of community-firs reporting is in jeopardy. Sinclair Broadcast Group, a nationwide media conglomerate that owns several local television stations, is increasingly imposing its conservative political views on its newscasts.
Anchors around the country at Sinclair affiliates are being forced to air stories that align with Sinclair’s beliefs and against mainstream media outlets, such as CNN.
John Oliver of HBO’s “Last Week Tonight” explained the issues behind Sinclair’s antics before they got better at disguising their policies.
He touched on their Terrorism Alert Desk, which focused on unsubstantiated Muslim ties to various phenomena in society and implied that Muslims are terrorists.
These are all part of a concept that Sinclair has levied over its syndicates: “must-runs,” which are pieces the company forces its stations to air. Most of these pieces are partisan in favor of President Donald Trump and Republican ideologies. The Washington Post provided an example of what a must-run email from Sinclair higher-ups might look like:
“DESCRIPTION: Why did Hillary Clinton struggle with disclosing her medical diagnosis? She has been repeatedly faced with previous questions of trust. Can a president lead with so many questions of transparency and trust?
“There were no equivalent ‘must-run’ stories examining Trump’s refusal to release his medical or tax records or about questions surrounding his charitable foundation,” the Post’s Paul Farhi wrote.
Sinclair, until very recently, would not have been in a position to have an influence over such a large swath of local news. Laws prohibiting media companies from owning a newspaper and television station in the same market, as well as the number of local stations a single entity could own, have fallen over the last few months.
Consequently, as New York Magazine reported, Sinclair has now found its way into 70 percent of American households.
The Pew poll from the beginning of this piece was conducted in July 2016, at a time when these laws placing limits on media corporations were still in effect and not considered likely to be repealed.
But as Sinclair airs more of its work on stations that hadn’t previously been subject to political bias, the message it gets out to consumers about where “fake news” comes from may be so misleading that it borders on propaganda.
It’s possible that local news viewers will not be able to trust a majority of their evening newscasts in the years to come. Unless the repealed laws are placed back into effect, though, it looks like local news may be tainted with political agendas moving forward.