Do Good Newspapers Make Good Congressmen?

Press coverage often does hold politicians accountable — on the local level at least.

That’s according to a new working paper by David Stromberg and James M. Snyder Jr.

They found that congressmen from districts with newspapers that aggressively cover local politics tend to work harder to represent the interests of their constituents.

Such congressmen are more likely to break with their parties, more likely to bring home pork-barrel projects, and more likely to participate actively in committee hearings than congressmen from districts without a strong local press.

In the study, the accountability effect is strongest where the boundaries of one media market most closely match the borders of a single congressional district. In big cities, where one newspaper might cover several districts, or in rural areas, where there may be no local paper coverage at all, press coverage of local congressional representatives “becomes more selective and superficial,” according to the authors.

In these districts, fewer voters know the name of their congressman, let alone how he or she votes in Congress. That reduces the incentive for a congressman to be responsive to the needs of his or her district.

The study also found that television news coverage had almost no effect on voter knowledge of their congressmen, and it found mixed results with internet news coverage.

With the number of local newspapers declining across America, and the dwindling circulation of those that remain, will Congress become less responsive?


Gretchen

Both of my closest "large" papers - serving the Central Valley of California, fired their political reporters right before this election cycle kicked into high gear. Currently their political opinions are being written by the general op-ed staff, and while they are at least producing some coverage, the reporting quality and quantity has definitely decreased dramatically for both papers. Many people I have spoken to who already voted by absentee can't even recall the names of the people they voted for. Great timing, guys!

Performify

This just in: "accountability works." Shocking.

Pamela Langford

I agree that some, not all, congressmen are very relaxed. I wrote Virginia's senator Webb because an IRS auditor incorrectly applied an accuracy penality to my IRS audit, which inaccurately increased the amount I owed. Then the auditor didn't provide a letter 525 so I could disagree with his findings. I requested and received the letter 525 because I knew it existed. I sent Webb's office a letter asking him to make sure other taxpayer's right to disagree with this auditor's findings were not denied by the omission of the 525. After all, people loose their homes, etc. if they can't pay the taxes. Webb's office requested that I sign a paper authorizing them to review my audit paperwork, which I provided. Next, I received a response from Webb's office saying "we have forwarded your concerns to the IRS for their consideration". Silly me, I expected a letter indicating that "the matter is under investigation", or something like that. Instead the response was similar to one I would have received if I said "someone left chewing gum on a chair outside your office."

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Meg

This is not terribly surprising-- in 2002, Besley and Burgess published a study showing that state-provided disaster relief and similar forms of aid in India were more likely to reach areas where there were at least a few privately-run newspapers in the local language.

Mike B

Hopefully the growth in the new types of web-based reporting will lead to increased amounts of community involvement and accountability for elected officials. Collaborative sites using wiki or blog technology can become in effect a virtual community center where the latest scuttlebutt in local, state and federal government can be disseminated and discussed.

My town in suburban Philadelphia is served by both the Philadelphia market papers, a regional paper and a local paper. The original "old media" local papers have long since gone belly up, but today there is still a community centered non-profit paper published by local volunteers dealing with local "event" type issues as well as local politics. As the web-based demographics begin to dominate I am sure this sort of thing will move online.

While the "last mile" will certainly be covered, the real issue is who will handle the first mile, going to DC (or the state capitol) and going actual reporting beyond what is freely available on the national wires, blogs and C-SPAN. The web has been great for helping niche interest groups aggregate and spread information. The question remains, are there people who naturally haunt the halls of government on their own time to dig up dirt and spread the word to folks back home or will this require a real reporter with a salary?

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jblog

Interesting analysis at a time when local newspapers are cutting news staffs and closing statehouse bureaus.

The type of dedicated, focused reporting described here is disappearing, simply because there are fewer and fewer people to do it.

jimi

"more likely to bring home pork-barrel projects" does not a good Congressman make.

They are passing laws for the entire country, not just their constituents.

jon feldman

I feel that papers, with respect to national level politics have failed to be reporting agencies. They blatantly support one party. This means that any national level politicians from the other party have to work harder to appease their constituents, calming the paper down (who wants to read about how evil the person who attracted hundreds of millions of dollars to the region is?)

Kevin H

I think this makes a lot of sense. People are always complaining that the Politicians don't do a good enough job. They seem to forget that we live in a representative democracy. Politicians simply do what they think will get them elected. If we have an uninformed populace who aren't willing to donate to political campaigns, we will have inept politicians who take money from special interests and only act when they think they can spin the idea to coincide with the uninformed opinion of the masses.

The death of local news papers probably does lead to more poorly informed voters about local issues. However, initiatives such as the Knight News Challenge that Stephen posted about very recently have a shot of turning the tide in the other direction.

Alex

It doesn't matter so much if there are no local rural papers. Congressmen for rural areas represent much more than just one locale.

All of Wyoming has 1 member of the House. All you need a single Wyoming-centric paper. The same holds true for Montana, North Dakota & South Dakota. All large rural states. But you cannot actually believe that they lack a single state paper?

In many other states with multiple representatives, the entire rural area has one rep, and the urban area(s) have the others. Are we to believe that there are no regaional papers in those states' rural areas?

Rural is clearly not the problem.

frankenduf

i really like that last sentence- one of the most dangerous aspects of our shoddy media is the disconnect between citizens and government, making it ever more likely that government will be hijacked by industry lobbyists

Mal

The only thing to hold national politics accountable is the "Daily Show." And it preferably needs to be funny.

Tiber

Kingling (#14): Don't knock The Daily Show/Colbert Report. Sure, they're not strictly a news program (they're more like a talk show), but they cover the news far more truthfully than most real new shows. In fact, there was an old study done that found that watchers of the shows were among the most knowledgeable about current affairs. Interestingly, Fox News watchers were one of the lowest scorers.

As for bias, as long as the source doesn't pretend to be unbiased *cough*Fox News*cough*, it doesn't bother me. There's no such thing as an unbiased person anyway. The closest you can come to the truth is to get your news from multiple sources, especially those that occupy opposite ends of the political and/or ideological spectrum.

Honestly, I've thought for quite a while that news programs should be taking the time to cover politics outside of scandals and elections. Ever heard of the PRO-IP act, the one that originally included having the Department of Justice divert resources to hunting down pirates while sending the income to the industry (notably the RIAA & MPAA), essentially turning the DoJ into pro bono lawyers? If you've only been watching television news you haven't. While the cats are away, the mice will play.

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Gregory Holman, Springfield, Missouri

The journalistic world gets very worked up about this kind of study, but I'm not so sure we should. With or without newspapers, the future won't be better or worse; it will just be different.

scott

How can Congress become less responsive?

Gary

If that's so, we have a serious shortage of good newspapers in this country.

ALS NYC

The demise of the newspaper is a serious business. I often wonder if my subscription costs for the NYTimes which I usually read online anyway shouldn't be considered a charitable donation or an education expense?!

Seriously, this is why the editorials are so important.

I hope that these opinions blogs sponsored by the Times, which are fantastic, might help "educate" those in charge of the editorials (so that the editorials more often reflect my point of view!).

Reading which is emphasized so much is taught so often with limited attention to newspapers. What a pity!

Kinglink

The biggest problem with the media and the newspapers today is obvious. Bias. I don't care which way bias exists, once I get enough of it (usually minutes after it becomes obvious), I no longer am interested in the paper. The problem is almost every newspaper has obvious bias once the topic of politics comes up. Rather than scrutinizing everything everyone says, they tend to focus on people they disagree with on other issues.

And don't get me started on the sad state of the world when we start pretending the Daily show or the Colbert Report is "news".

jblog

"The only thing to hold national politics accountable is the “Daily Show.” And it preferably needs to be funny."

Yes, but who holds the "Daily Show" accountable?

It is, after all, a comedy show written by comics, not a news show written by professional journalists.

It's a sad thing if this is the way people are getting their information -- reflecting poorly both on the viewers and the state of journalism in this nation.

DJH

The premise of this paper makes some sense. I'm not sure how well it works out in practice, though. My Congressman serves a district which is its own media market -- and whose chief newspaper's circulation matches the borders of his district almost exactly -- yet he's a multi-term incumbent with no accomplishments to speak of under his belt, and who picks up no "pork" that I'm aware of. And his challenger is far behind him, meaning he'll be re-elected so that he can do absolutely nothing of consequence for another 2 years.

It is possible that the media that cover his district have decided they like him, though, so they refuse to hold his feet to the fire journalistically. This may be where the scenario falls apart ... if the papers want someone in office, they'll specifically avoid holding him accountable.