Media Markets and Localism: Does Local News en Español Boost Hispanic Voter Turnout?

by Felix Oberholzer-Gee & Joel Waldfogel

Overview — The increased integration of markets for news and entertainment means that more viewers can watch shows that better match their preferences, whether that means American football, Japanese anime, or Mexican soap operas. But is there an attendant risk to civic society, as some scholars claim? Do locally engaged citizens turn into passive viewers? The explosion in the U.S. of local television news in Spanish provides an ideal stage for probing these questions. This paper tests whether the presence of local television news affects local civic engagement in the form of voter turnout. Key concepts include:

  • The availability of Spanish-language local television news significantly boosts Hispanic voter turnout.
  • Regulatory policies should protect local media.

Author Abstract

Since the dawn of broadcasting, and especially in the past decade, Americans have turned their attention from local to more distant sources of news and entertainment. While the integration of media markets will raise the private welfare of many consumers, critics of a globalized information and entertainment industry claim that transnational media undermine civic engagement, transforming locally engaged citizens into viewers consuming programming from distant sources. In response to such concerns, many regulatory agencies, including the Federal Communication Commission in the United States, curtail the integration of media markets to promote "localism." To find the right balance between the private benefits of integrated markets and the public value of civic engagement, evidence on the size of the positive spillovers from local media is needed. To date, such evidence is scant. In this paper, we exploit the rapid growth of Hispanic communities in the United States to test whether the presence of local television news affects local civic behavior. Spanish-language local television news programming was available in 25 US metro areas in 2002, up from only 14 areas in 1994. Our estimates indicate that Hispanic voter turnout increased by 5 to 10 percentage points, relative to non-Hispanic voter turnout, in markets where local Spanish-language television news became available. We conclude that the tradeoff between integrated media markets and civic engagement is real. The results of this study provide a basis for the continued pursuit of regulatory policies that promote localism.

Paper Information