Public Policy Forum Blog

Local media coverage of politics impacts federal spending

A recent working paper by professors James Snyder of MIT and David Stromberg of the University of Stockholm, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, finds that local media coverage of politics affects not only citizens' knowledge of their elected U.S. representatives, but also how hard those officials work and how much federal money they bring back to their districts.

From the paper's abstract:

Voters living in areas with less coverage of their U.S. House representative are less likely to recall their representative's name, and less able to describe and rate them. Congressmen who are less covered by the local press work less for their constituencies: they are less likely to stand witness before congressional hearings, to serve on constituency-oriented committees (perhaps), and to vote against the party line. Finally, this congressional behavior affects policy. Federal spending is lower in areas where there is less press coverage of the local members of congress

What the authors found, specifically, was that in print media markets in which most readers lived in one particular congressional district, newspapers printed more stories mentioning the elected representative of that district, while newspapers with markets covering several districts covered Congressional representatives less often. Survey work found that citizens who live in the "highly congruent" media markets covering fewer districts were more likely to know the name of at least one candidate in the last Congressional campaign in their district. The authors argue that greater knowledge among citizens leads to greater accountability for elected officials.

This argument underpins their next finding, that representatives of districts with congruent newspaper markets worked harder for their constituents than those of districts that either overlapped with many media markets or "fell through the cracks" of surrounding markets. Indeed, they found Congressmen from highly congruent districts to be "more disciplined by their constituencies." Significantly, they voted along party lines less often, they testified before congressional hearings more often, and they were more likely to serve on committees having more relevancy to their constituency than on committees with broad policy orientation.

With that finding, the authors hypothesized that these representatives would have greater ability to have policy impacts at home, as measured by the federal spending per capita in the counties in their district. They in fact found this to be the case.

Interestingly, however, they found only a weakly significant positive relationship between media market congruence and voter turnout. The elected representatives' behavior was predicable from the amount of newspaper coverage despite the fact that the media coverage did not affect voter turnout.

These findings have relevance for metro Milwaukee, where there is one large newspaper with a large market area that covers more than one Congressional district. Thus, we live in an incongruent market, where the print media's readers live in several districts. According to the findings of this research, we should each therefore expect less coverage of our own U.S. Representative. Southeast Wisconsin's Congressmen and Congresswomen, for their part, should expect less media scrutiny and less knowledgeable constituents, which may lead them to do less to ensure the region's citizens get a healthy return on their federal tax dollars. Indeed, the Forum's analysis of 2003 federal spending in the nation's 50 largest metro areas found Milwaukee ranked 40th, at $5,321 per capita.

The authors compare their findings to similar research on media competition and find that congruence may be a bigger factor than the number of newspapers covering a district. When Milwaukee's two newspapers merged in the early 1990's, readers openly and loudly worried about the quality of news coverage. When, in the early 2000's, the paper decided to focus more on the suburban readership, thereby expanding its market, readers worried about the effects on coverage of urban issues. What we should also have been worried about, perhaps, was how it would affect the quality of our political clout in Washington.

Anneliese Dickman