The coronavirus pandemic has forced us all to pause and take stock of our lives over the past few months. Socializing with friends, visiting family members and jetting off on holiday are things we’ve all taken for granted at some point, but probably won’t ever again.

The longer coronavirus rears its head, the more concerned and interested people are in how the virus directly impacts them, their family, their friends, where they live, their workplace. The national and social media has a barrage of opinions on who to blame because we were too late / too soon going into lockdown, no-one should wear a face mask / everyone should, we should still stay at home / get back to the office…  But these ‘theoretical discussions’ don’t help answer the real questions people need to have answers for – just how the virus directly impacts them, their family, their friends, where they live, their workplace, and what best practices are working?

Turn to the national press?

A few weeks back my editorial colleague wrote a piece praising the trade and tech press and commenting that it had done a better job for its readers than the national media with its huge mass audiences. The national press seemed to have concentrated on weaponizing COVID-19, the trade and tech on reporting helpful advice, suggestions and user experience of how businesses have coped with the pandemic. No wonder, you might say, we’re seeing a further decline in people reading national newspapers. In the UK national print newspaper sales have plummeted by 30% after the government imposed the nationwide lockdown in March – causing the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC), responsible for recording and auditing newspaper sales, to stop publishing its usual monthly sales figures to prevent a ‘negative narrative of decline’!

Fake news – a potential by-product of less local reporting

So how about social? A recent study conducted by Ohio State University in March 2020 shows how social media actually makes it difficult to identify real news. Its findings are worth a read if you’re interested in news but clearly indicate that there’s a price to pay when you get your news and political information from social media. The study found that people viewing a blend of news and entertainment on a social media site tended to pay less attention to the source of content they consumed – meaning they could easily mistake satire or fiction for real news – and indeed they do.

Research from British broadcasting watchdog Ofcom, says the number of people sourcing news from social media once again rose in 2019, from 44% to 49%. With more and more people sourcing their ‘news’ from social media, fact and fiction can be warped. We have seen an abundance of conspiracy theories recently. How could we forget the rumor of 5G connecting the spread of the virus which went viral, and less imaginative myths such as drinking water as a means to ‘wash the virus down’.

The importance of local and regionalized news

This led me to look around to check out the news sources that us ordinary mortals need to know to carry on with everyday life, so I looked at regional press. After all, it makes sense to learn about the details and understand the rules for the area you live in – rather than the different circumstances in other parts of the country or world that bear no resemblance to your geographic location.

It’s here where the role of local and regional news is vital and during the pandemic, is of greater interest than normal. As local lockdowns continue, the public are crying out for timely, transparent information on conditions in their communities more than ever, but cuts to local news output make this increasingly challenging.

Worrying times ahead for local news

Regional news coverage has been suffering for years but the pandemic could mean it is time for a resurgence. This is the harsh reality. In the US, the pandemic is said to have led to the closure of over 50 local newsrooms across America so far.

In the UK, over three years ago National Union of Journalists research revealed that the BBC closed more than 20 district offices between the years 2007 to 2017, and in May it was reported the British public service broadcaster was considering more cutbacks in local news.

Communities need media integrity – not inaccuracy

Thankfully though, it seems there might be some shoots of local news positivity. A by-product from the recent pandemic is that some people seem to be returning to their local news sources for information. A recent study from the Pew Research Center in the US found that about six-in-ten Americans (61%) said they were following news about the coronavirus outbreak at both the national and local level equally. Around a quarter (23%) said they were paying more attention to news at the local level, with only 15% saying they put more sole focus on national news outlets.

And the bounce for local media looks as if it may continue after lockdowns are fully lifted. One UK survey highlighted 85% of adults agree that community spirit is more important than ever as we come out of the pandemic, with 76% saying that local news brands are a big part of building this.

The point is, without local newspapers and regional news providing accurate and credible information on a daily basis, inaccuracies and wide of the mark ideas will only carry more weight and take up more column space. It’s vital the media puts point scoring aside and stops moving further away from its sole purpose – to inform and help its audience.

Sam Harris is Pitch&Place Specialist at IBA International.

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