Do Local Newspapers Mitigate the Effects of the Polarized National Rhetoric on COVID-19?

January 7, 2022

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This analysis tests two distinct predictions regarding local newspapers’ coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. A public service view of local newspapers predicts that a robust local newspaper sector would mitigate the politicized national partisan rhetoric surrounding COVID-19; reducing the disparity in social-distancing behaviors between predominantly Republican and predominantly Democratic counties by increasing compliance in Republican counties. The alternative hypothesis, informed by a demand-side view of the market pressures local newspapers face, predicts that increased competition between local newspapers will increase the degree to which local newspapers amplify the rhetoric of national officials in line with the partisan composition of their community, further polarizing adherence to social-distancing behaviors across predominantly Republican versus predominantly Democratic counties. The results of this analysis offer strong support for the second hypothesis; but, an additional analysis of vaccination rates offers a more nuanced perspective than a simple public service versus demand-side dichotomy would imply.

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