Discover more from smol farm gazette
Mile 420 and Our Failing Local News
A ridiculous local news "exposé" demonstrates the need for much better local journalism.
St. Louis news anchor Paige Hulsey became the laughingstock of the internet today for an expose on hidden drugs in a staged bedroom that included a Mile 420 sign and a tye-dye tapestry with clear pot leaves in the pattern. When criticized on Twitter, she cited the fentanyl epidemic — as if pot is the problem rather than it being a drug less harmful than alcohol used to disproportionately lock up people of color. The entire charade feels stuck in the nineties, and this is a major problem. We need good local news.
Yale historian Timothy Snyder, whose life’s work has focused on fascism and authoritarianism, has repeatedly made the case that quality local news is crucial to saving democracy. The digital world in which we spend so much of our time immersed gives things a certain degree of surreality from which we can emotionally distance ourselves. Local news connects the digital with the world around you. In Snyder’s words, “whether it makes them happy or not, they have to have the feeling that this is part of the texture of their own life.”
Local news, in many ways, represents the intellectual and emotional bridge between the bubble of our lives and the goings-on in the greater world. When we think and feel about things happening in places we know, we inform the way that we think about similar events elsewhere. In other words, local news helps you feel empathy for the non-local, to see it more than just another story in the drama of the world. Seeing the impact of local news events first-hand helps build trust in journalism.
Of course, this effect is not necessarily positive if biased stories or trends dominate local news. Racist over-reporting of crimes perpetrated by armed black men is a common source of sensationalization for local news. This, in turn, drives more broadly racist attitudes among viewers. Poynter, an organization dedicated to ethics and fact-checking in journalism, recently highlighted this problem, calling on local news to rectify the racist rhetoric.
Those who are fans of John Oliver will know about his recent antics getting fake sponsored content on local news. The standards at these news outlets are so low that they will often air anything to make a quick buck, even at the expense of the slightest bit of verification. One would think that “Venus Veil sexual wellness blanket” would prompt stations known for wanting a “family-friendly” reputation to at least do a little digging, but no.
The problem, of course, is that there is just little money to be made in local news — now more than ever. People are largely focused on the national and international events that fill up their social media feeds, and, of course, such articles are absolutely important and worth reading. However, we are losing that connection to the news, that locality — and it’s not that people do not care. It’s that they are not given reason enough to care.
This pattern leads to political problems whose solutions are often needed at the municipal level, such as more affordable housing, to be discussed solely in broad and theoretical terms — and those discussions are important to understanding how to solve the problem. But the local is ignored, at least by the mass media.
When social media is left to set the conversation, reactionary perspectives typically dominate, given that lax moderation leaves the loudest voices to crowd out the others. We have a drought of local news stories about meaningfully solving housing pricing, but we have a surplus of racist Nextdoor posts about concerns over those people moving in that new apartment complex to be built soon.
Solving this problem will be tricky. We certainly need more public investment in news. Many cities have affiliates of National Public Radio or the Public Broadcasting Service that air segments about local events — the concept works much like it does with for-profit entities like NBC, the funding is just usually lacking. However, if there was a deeper understanding of the importance of local news, the political will might be mustered.
Despite living in the Information Era, we live in a time dominated by disinformation that often has devastating consequences, from people voting in authoritarian reactionaries to not getting vaccines that protect not just them, but those around them. As Professor Snyder himself emphasizes, new forms of media are disruptive in chaotic ways — the “printing press when it was invented, led to 150 years of religious war.”
Restoring local news is a way to help restore people’s ability to trust information reported from mainstream sources and bolster their immunity to bullshit online — a much different but very important sort of vaccine. A multimedia approach is necessary. We must connect with people locally where they are digitally. So often, when people think of local news, they merely think of television, but social media posts — often backed with longer articles with more information — are an extremely effective and shareable way to connect to people online.
We need to stop this national — but still local — embarrassment. The digital era did not make the local obsolete, it made it more important than ever! As a society, we should do everything we can to ensure that people feel meaningful connections between the digital and the analog, between the local and the distant, between the individual and the community. To be better digital neighbors, we need to re-learn to be better actual neighbors. And that requires, among other things, quality local journalism.