"Local news and COVID-19 in North Carolina" table of contents
- Local news and COVID-19 in North Carolina
- The Problem: COVID-19 and the shrinking local newsroom
- Research questions: What were we trying to figure out?
- Background: What does the existing research say?
- Methodology: How we did the study
- Findings: What we learned
- Discussion: What do the results mean?
- Recommendations: Where do we go from here?
- Limitations: What we couldn’t do
- Areas for further study
- References, About the author, Special thanks
By Ely Portillo
Editor’s Note: Ely Portillo is a UNC Class of 2022 winter graduate student in the Master of Arts in Digital Communication program at the UNC Hussman School of Media and Journalism. He will be honored in the May 2023 Commencement as the Outstanding M.A. Digital Communication Student. His thesis was originally published on his “Local news and COVID-19 in North Carolina” site and is republished with permission. CISLM Director Erica Perel served on Portillo’s thesis committee.
Outside of his work at UNC-Chapel Hill, Portillo is the Senior Editor for News and Planning at WFAE 90.7 in Charlotte, NC.
The COVID-19 pandemic reshaped the world and profoundly changed our lives. Although it was a global disaster, the pandemic’s impact was felt by most people at the local level as we navigated a strange new reality filled with new words like Zoom school, social distancing and N-95 masks.
Is it safe to go to the grocery store? How long are my children going to be home from school? Will my favorite restaurant reopen? Is there capacity at the local hospital if my Mom gets sick?
Local news organizations found themselves facing an immense task — one that was literally life-or-death, in some cases — as they tried to keep their communities informed in the midst of an unfolding catastrophe. But local news organizations had themselves already been devastated by years of falling revenue, shrinking budgets, layoffs and buyouts. Meanwhile, the tides of misinformation rise ever higher, fueled by social media and profound political polarization.
How did local news organizations manage this shifting landscape? What topics did they cover? How was that coverage framed? And how much truly local coverage did they produce? This thesis project sought to answer these questions for a set of local news organizations in North Carolina and make recommendations about how local news organizations can respond to future crises.
News Desert: a community, either rural or urban, with limited access to the sort of credible and comprehensive news and information that feeds democracy at the grassroots level. — The Expanding News Desert
About this project
This project is a thesis submitted to the faculty at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts in Digital Communication in the Hussman School of Journalism and Media.
The COVID-19 crisis was a global catastrophe experienced as a local event: School closures, dining restrictions, mask mandates, testing requirements, case numbers and death rates varied intensely from place to place in the U.S.
Robust local news and information was key to helping people stay safe and protect their communities. But local news ecosystems across the U.S. have suffered serious harm in the past few decades, as revenues nosedive, news sources consolidate and layoffs eliminate thousands of jobs. How has this diminution of traditional journalism outlets impacted local communities’ access to truly local news during the COVID-19 crisis?
Using content analysis, this study examined the topics, framing and overall quantity of local news coverage of six local news outlets from three communities in North Carolina during four one-week periods in the pandemic’s first year, representing spring, summer, fall and winter. Key findings included that the total amount of local coverage from five of the six outlets fell over time even as the severity of the pandemic increased; that some news sources used the framings of hope, explanatory or risk far more often than others; that substantial differences existed between the topics different news sources covered most frequently; and that the smallest town in the study received no locally relevant TV news coverage at all.
From the data and trends identified in this project, recommendations were made for how news sources can provide more consistent coverage and best serve their audiences’ needs when the next local crisis inevitably strikes.