Americans Trust Local News. That Belief Is Being Exploited.

As the tactic has become more common, political leaders have also created or promoted seemingly independent local websites. For instance, a website called the California Republican, which appeared in 2018, describes itself on Facebook as providing “the best of U.S., California and Central Valley news, sports and analysis.” But it was paid for by the campaign committee of Devin Nunes, a Republican congressman from California. Kelli Ward, a Republican representative from Arizona, promoted an endorsement during that election from the Arizona Monitor, another pseudo-local site. And in Maine, a website called the Maine Examiner, which published leaked emails from a Democratic candidate, was revealed to have been created by the state Republican Party’s executive director.

Covertly ideological local sources aren’t exclusively online. The media giant Sinclair has similarly blurred the lines between local and national journalism in television news. When local stations are acquired by Sinclair, a recent study shows, their news content becomes more nationally focused and more conservative. The company often issues so-called must-run national segments, such as a recent commentary that sought to blame illegal immigration for sexual violence against children. And in March 2018, Sinclair directed local stations to air a promotional clip in which anchors read a company script denouncing “the troubling trend of irresponsible, one-sided news” as if they were using their own words, a tactic that was exposed in a viral clip.

All of these outside groups seem to be trying to capitalize on people’s trust in local news. In the 2018 Poynter Media Trust Survey, the political scientists Andy Guess, Jason Reifler and I found that Americans express greater trust in news from local television and newspapers than from national outlets. This is especially true of Republicans, the partisan group that is most skeptical of the national media.

The differences in trust we observe translate into differences in interest and consumption preferences. First, a Pew survey found that three in four Americans say they follow local news somewhat or very closely — the same fraction as those who report following national news closely.

Moreover, what people say in surveys tracks their behavior under controlled conditions. In the 2019 Poynter Media Trust Survey (which found similarly high levels of trust in local news), we asked a representative sample of Americans to repeatedly indicate which of two articles they would prefer to read.

Each article summary included a randomly assigned headline, date, author and source type, which varied between a local television station, radio station or newspaper; national newspapers and broadcast networks; and national online-only outlets. This approach allowed us to account for differences in topics between national and local news.

Over all, we found that people preferred to consume local news most. Holding other factors constant, Americans were 11 percentage points more likely to choose articles from local news sources than ones from online-only national outlets — precisely why dubious websites might impersonate local news sources. This differential was largest among Republican identifiers and people with a negative view of the news media.