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Where Is the Local News About COVID-19?

As if disinformation and confusion about COVID-19 at the national level were not bad enough, the pandemic also coincides with rising authoritarianism and declining local news coverage in many countries. Now more than ever, we must support independent journalism where it counts most in people's day-to-day lives.

PRINCETON – During a pandemic, accurate information can be a matter of life and death. People need reliable reports about the impact of the disease and the threat it poses to their city, community, or neighborhood. Most citizens’ immediate concern is not whether their country is on the right macro-trajectory, but whether their local grocery store is practicing proper hygiene and enforcing social-distancing measures.

One of the many tragedies of the COVID-19 pandemic is that it comes at a time when local media have been decimated in many countries, and when authoritarians such as US President Donald Trump, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi have been waging all-out war on independent journalism. At a recent daily press conference, Trump accused a reporter of dispensing “fake news,” and then suggested that injecting household disinfectants might be effective against the coronavirus.

The heart of the problem is that local news, in particular, has been severely disrupted by a broader restructuring of the economy over the past two decades. Historically, advertising sustained serious journalism. As NYU’s Clay Shirky pointed out in a 2009 commentary, Wal-Mart may or may not have had an interest in the news from Iraq, but it was nonetheless subsidizing newspapers’ Baghdad bureaus.

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