Survey of mayors and city managers of 1,384 towns with
populations under 10,000 shows majority believe newspapers
should promote the unity of the community sp.
CHIEF ADMINISTRATORS OF small towns fully support the watchdog function of the rural American press, but they also firmly believe local newspapers should be community boosters, according to a recent survey.
"There are those who feel the job of newspapers should be sniffing out scoundrels and chasing them out of town, and pointing out mistakes so that citizens may hold the appropriate scoundrels responsible. At the same time, others argue that in small communities, newspapers should be there for one reason and one reason only ? to promote the unity of the community," said David Kanervo, chairman of the political science and sociology department at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tenn.
Kanervo and his wife, Ellen Williamson Kanervo, who chairs the speech, communications and theater department at Austin Peay, mailed questionnaires to mayors and city managers of 1,384 towns in all 50 states. They got back 490 responses, mainly from places with populations under 10,000.
The Kanervos released their findings during the National Newspaper Association's (NNA) Newspapers and Community Building Symposium, held during the NNA national convention at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., and sponsored by the Huck Boyd National Center for Community Media.
A little more than half of the survey respondents agreed that newspapers should shed light on wrongdoing, even if the coverage could hurt some local citizens. Nearly three-fourths said papers shouldn't shy away from covering environmental concerns in an area, even if it might negatively impact community businesses.
But an overwhelming majority of those polled, more than 85%, contended newspapers should give attention to projects that everybody in a town can work on, and about 84% said reporting on residents' uniting behind a common cause is an important role of the community press.
The researchers asked town executives how they thought their local editors viewed their own jobs. Not surprisingly, the elected officials generally saw journalists as less interested in being cheerleaders and more concerned with acting as gatekeepers.
Most leaders revealed that they had tried to influence what their local papers reported. Large majorities said they had phrased statements so they would be used as quotes in news articles and had suggested story and photo ideas to newspaper staffers. Nearly half had written letters to the editor.
Almost two-thirds admitted they had withheld information from reporters. About one-fourth of the executives said they had asked a newspaper not to cover a local matter, but only 4% said they had threatened to pull advertising in an attempt to control editorial content.
Overall, officials had favorable opinions of their local newspaper staffs and what they produce.
Eight out of ten said the editors were trustworthy, and 70% considered the reporters covering local government knowledgeable. Three-fourths felt their hometown newspapers did a good job of covering all sides of controversies fairly, and the same number said the papers' reporting was almost always correct.
Ideology and gender shaped survey responses, researchers said. Mayors and city managers who characterized themselves as conservative and Republican were more apt to see newspapers as unifiers, and male chief executives were more interested in promoting community togetherness than their female counterparts.
Education and age were significantly related to respondents' views. Better-educated administrators had a greater appreciation for the print medium, were more likely to read newspapers and had more developed attitudes about the news media, the Kanervos found.
Officials who had more schooling thought it right that newspapers shed light on local affairs, but they said the local press should also focus on problem-solving by the citizenry.
Most older town leaders were sympathetic to the media's watchdog role, but they agreed newspapers should refrain from reporting environmental news that could affect a community's economic vitality. Interestingly, these respondents saw editors as supportive of the opinion that the press ought to promote unity.
The elder respondents "grew up at a time when newspapers were the primary source of political news," the Kanervos wrote in a report, summing up the findings of their survey. "While television news is today the primary source of news for most citizens, somewhat older people may have a greater affinity for newspapers and hold them in somewhat higher regard than younger people as a source of news and opinion about public affairs in today's world."
By: Tony Case Newspapers As Community Boosters p. 11