Research: Readers seek local news during COVID-19 pandemic

By Katalina Deaven

Center for Media Engagement

Austin, Texas, USA

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Newsrooms are still adjusting to the realities of reporting in the age of coronavirus: working from home, meeting deadlines in spite of a pared down staff, and confronting a myriad of other challenges that continue to pop up. They do all of this while navigating the constant flow of coronavirus updates.

During this difficult time, the Center for Media Engagement is looking for ways to ensure newsrooms stay connected with their audiences. We’ve already shared some of our research-based tips for building audience trust and encouraging engagement. Now, we’re helping newsrooms identify the coronavirus coverage viewers and readers find most important.

On March 23, we launched a survey, asking people what information about the coronavirus pandemic they wanted local news outlets to share. On the same day, we took a snapshot of the stories that newsrooms across the United States posted to Facebook.

The results of our study can help newsrooms identify where their coverage overlaps with viewer appetite — and where there are opportunities to provide more of the types of stories viewers want.

Local news coverage people want

When surveyed, people’s top news coverage priorities were local health updates and information about local entities providing critical services.

Local health updates rated as highly important included information about what to do if you have symptoms, the number of local people testing positive, the number of local deaths, and information about testing — how to get tested, who can get tested, and the availability of testing in the area.

Also rated as important was information about local and state restrictions, fact checks of misinformation, and information about critical services such as how local hospitals, local grocery stores, and local governments were responding to or are affected by the virus.

A snapshot local newsroom coverage

When we compared the categories of coverage that people rated as most important to the stories local newspapers and broadcast outlets posted to Facebook on March 23, we found two of the most-covered topics were also rated as highly important by survey respondents:

  • How local and state governments were responding to the virus (like information about stay-at-home orders and local and state restrictions).
  • The number of local people who tested positive.

In this case, newsrooms were definitely meeting the needs of their audiences.

However, newsrooms also frequently posted stories about the economic effects of the virus and how local businesses (other than grocery stores, restaurants, and bars) were affected by or responding to the virus. At the time of our survey, news consumers did not prioritise these as highly as other topics.

In terms of how coronavirus coverage performed on Facebook, stories focused on health information earned the most engagement. Posts about what to do if someone displays symptoms got the most likes and shares. Stories about local and state government response and posts that included information about local deaths, local testing, local hospitals, and local grocery stores also performed well.

Takeaways for newsrooms

You’ll notice the word “local” pop up over and over again in this article. People are turning to their local newsrooms for information they can’t get from national outlets. Of the news posts we looked at, however, only 65% focused on local information. We can’t stress enough how important it is to report on local news. People need local media to provide information that can help them navigate the effects of the coronavirus in their area.

Though we only provided a snapshot of a day that now seems like an eternity ago — especially in terms of news developments — much of this information remains of interest. People still want to know how the coronavirus is affecting the health of their local area, what resources are available to them, and what’s going on with local entities providing critical services. We suggest newsrooms use our snapshot as a guide to help make story choices that, above all else, keep reader and viewer needs in mind.

About Katalina Deaven

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