~ Submitted by Doug Muder
Writing on the School of Journalism’s “Storybench” blog on October 13, Kennedy raised the question: Does better news coverage lead to greater voter engagement?
He studied the question by comparing two measures of voter engagement (number of candidates for local offices and voter turnout in municipal elections) in two towns (Bedford and our neighbor Burlington) over a 20-year period.
The Citizen must confess to feeling flattered by his choice of towns: Bedford, largely because of The Citizen, serves as an example of “better news coverage”. Kennedy describes us as “a robust nonprofit website that provides comprehensive coverage of the community”. By comparison, Burlington “lacks a local news source with the reach and comprehensiveness of The Bedford Citizen”.
Unfortunately for The Citizen’s collective ego, however, Kennedy’s two measures of engagement showed little evidence of the effect he was looking for. Burlington, which has roughly double Bedford’s population, had 22% more candidates. “Nor do we see any increase in the number of candidates running in Bedford starting in 2011, when The Bedford Citizen was founded.” Voter turnout in local elections jumped around from year to year in both towns, but was generally higher in Burlington, though the gap has been smaller since 2011.
Kennedy admits that “The outcome was not what I expected.” But he notes that “It may turn out, though, that the effect [of local news coverage] is too subtle to be measured when the sample size is small and when there is background noise in the form of differences in the communities being measured.” (Burlington has a 142-member representative town meeting, while Bedford practices more direct democracy through a town meeting open to all registered voters.)
But despite the fact that Kennedy’s study does not offer us any quantitative bragging rights, we at The Citizen continue to trust that our efforts improve the quality of political participation in our hometown.
Editor’s Note: Professor Kennedy, a panelist on WGBH’s late lamented Beat the Press, writes about local journalism on his blog ‘Media Nation’, and in his book, ‘The Wired City: Reimagining Journalism and Civic Life in the Post-Newspaper Age’.
Doug Muder is a member of The Bedford Citizen’s board. Muder represents the Strategic Planning Committee on its Content subcommittee at twice-weekly Editorial Committee meetings. He writes about national issues in his newsletter ‘The Weekly Sift’.