Q&A with sociopolitical local news researcher, Pranav Goel

Pranav Goel is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at Northeastern University’s Network Science Institute. He is particularly interested in the sociopolitical phenomenon of framing, including agenda-setting, in news and social media.

Goel is currently working on two collaborative projects, one of which aims to establish the popularity of news outlets in given communities and states and another that analyzes the relationship between local and national news as it relates to transgender coverage.

CISLM intern Twumasi Duah-Mensah interviewed Goel via Zoom. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media: What’s a recent research project you’ve done that has helped us understand the challenges facing local news?

Pranav Goel: The main question we (Goel, Alyssa Smith, Sagar Kumar and Yukun Yang) are asking is: who is driving the discourse around transgender-specific issues? So in that project, we are focused on media reporting on transgender people and transgender-specific issues. It is quite essential to understand the discourse in media to counter anti-trans hate. We know from previous research and documentation efforts that transphobia in media discourse is a huge problem. But transphobia, like reporting on any issue, can vary across local outlets and national outlets. This research is trying to (ask): is reporting or discourse around transgender specific issues flowing from the more local reporting to national level reporting or vice versa? How does that vary across partisanship?

CISLM: What should non-academics — local journalists or civically engaged community members — learn from that research?

PG: (The project) is trying to answer this question of who’s driving the discourse around transgender specific issues. So if you’re reporting as a local journalist, (is) the lens by which you are framing these issues influencing national news reporting? That’s really important to know because I think that could emphasize the responsibility of local journalism.

Even the opposite case is very interesting. Is local news really going out there and conducting normal examinations? Or is it just using national reporting once a national report of a large pattern comes out and then trying to use that to report on a specific thing in a local context?

I think understanding that is really important, especially as concerns around transphobia in mainstream media discourse are only growing. To mention a preliminary result, we are seeing Fox News (be) really reactive to local outlets. So it does seem like Fox News tends to pick up local news reporting around transgender-specific issues instead of the opposite way. We don’t see such reactive reporting in The New York Times, for example. So things will be driven by partisanship as well. But that’s already interesting to know because there is some previous research that suggests that framing of news tends to flow from national to local. But at least in terms of transgender discourse, what we are finding is there might be this unique dynamic where, for transgender reporting, it’s really flowing from local to national.

CISLM: What’s a recent research project in local news that you admire?

PG: Very recently, I came across this paper by Nikki Usher at the University of (California), San Diego, where the author is trying to examine the problem of the concept of news deserts. (The concept of) news deserts has become a very popular framing choice to convey that local news is dying. And I have also used that lens when I have been doing my research, but (Usher’s) paper really makes you question if that is the right framing, because there are a lot of problems in that (concept) of news deserts. This project tries to warn the scholarly community about what kind of problems we ignore when we frame something as “news deserts.” I think that project is really important because one way that we try to think about the problem of decline of local news is “OK, we need more local news. We need to bring (outlets) back.” Instead, I think research efforts like this try to make us think “OK, what is local news?” What do we ideally want it to be?

CISLM: Why does local news research matter?

PG: The main importance of local news is about awareness. In terms of people being able to make decisions that affect their lives, you can’t really make those decisions if there’s an information and awareness vacuum. Like we talk about decision making, we talk about informed decision making. If we are not aware of issues in our own community, it’s really hard to get together and do something about it. That vacuum of information and awareness is often filled by local news. I think that’s really important just to be able to make decisions in an informed way. And that goes to the heart of democratic functioning. It’s about people being able to make decisions that affect their day-to-day lives.

CISLM: What excites you about the future of local news?

PG: It has been well-documented that we do have this decline in local news coverage. We have large geographical gaps in local news coverage. So I think there is a really exciting opportunity here to also start thinking about “what does local news mean?” What is civic engagement with local news? What is that institution supposed to actually look like?

There is exciting work going on. I saw a project that is using social exchange theory and trying to conceptualize local news as something that is really interactive (and) encourages this really genuine two-way conversation and communication. It’s not just reporting in one way, and (it’s) done. It’s actually trying to engage the local populace, invite them into what kind of issues they care about and make it a back-and-forth process. That’s something that you know, bigger agencies and even previous local agencies that maybe no longer exist, were maybe unable to do. But perhaps now we have the tools to make this a very communicative news environment. And that kind of engagement often is kind of very hard to achieve at scale. It gets a bit trickier when you have a lot of people but I think that’s the advantage of having local news agencies where you can really engage with a single town in an ideal world.
I think (we must) avoid having simple answers (or) just trying to be nostalgic and bring something back. Instead of that, I think we have this great opportunity to reimagine “what is news supposed to look like?” How does it actually engage people

CISLM: What helps you get through a long day of work?

PG: I am very lucky to be mostly working on stuff that I want to work on. I think I have to recognize that I have the privilege to be able to do research, to be able to do projects — like, most of the things that I do at work are things that I want to do. So that already helps a lot, because even if things are frustrating, I know I’m doing it because I want to do it. I’m invested in it personally.

The other thing that really helps is being very lucky to have really good collaborators. Not just at the intellectual engagement level — which is already amazing and pretty energizing to be able to work with people who care about the kinds of things that you care about — but also just very nice and kind people that you know they’ll have your back, (and) you will have their back. So it just makes for a really good environment.

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