Exploring the Information Needs and Habits of Rhode Island residents

This study examined the state and context of the Rhode Island local news media marketplace and how the availability of news aligns with the perceived needs of Rhode Islanders for local information.  The Social Science Institute for Research, Education, and Policy (SSIREP) research team explored the range, type and availability of information that Rhode Islanders access in the context of decision-making for daily and community life. We used several methods for approaching different aspects of this research question. The research team included Shanna Pearson-Merkowitz, Professor of Political Science and Director of SSIREP, Hillary Leonard, Associate Professor of Marketing, and Yinjiao Ye, Professor of Communications. The study included interviews with Rhode Island residents of diverse backgrounds, a public opinion survey of 600 Rhode Island residents, and a content analysis of 832 news stories sampled from 37 local and state news sources.

A summary of the key findings is included below.  Detailed reports for each component of the study are available via the following links:

Key Findings:

  • Overall the findings of the content analysis found that implicit biases in journalistic and editorial decisions result in biased representations that reinforce stereotypes in the public.
    • Low-income residents were represented in only a small fraction of news stories (approximately 5%). These references were largely limited to certain contexts: low-income people were most commonly featured in stories about education and holiday giving.
    • Women were underrepresented in the local news and when women were quoted or mentioned, they were presented in their roles in traditionally female-dominated fields such as education and health care. There were severe gender biases in articles pertaining to government, law enforcement, and legal professions in particular.
    • Black and Hispanic residents were less likely to be quoted or discussed in the news. Stories featuring people of color were most often found in stories about diversity or about provisions being afforded to communities of color.
    • Representatives of community groups received little attention in Rhode Island news. Only 16 percent of stories featured a quote or reference to a representative from a community group.
  • Overall, the findings from the interviews suggested that state and local media do not adequately represent people like them and that people do not know how to engage in issues that are important to them.
    • Rhode Islanders prioritize fairness and accuracy in reporting. However, they also report high social media use even as they express a low level of trust in the information transmitted via social media.
    • Respondents expressed concern that local and state media do not adequately represent people like them.
    • Respondents indicated that they did not know how to engage in issues of local importance.
    • Trust of news and information was a consistent concern. Every participant noted that “fake news” was rampant and dangerous. Most said that they trusted sources based on friends’ recommendations, based on name-recognition, or based on repetition.
    • Every participant used their smartphone to access local news. For most participants, it was the only way they accessed local news. At least one also used a computer and for two, television.
    • Most participants felt more informed on national events than on what was happening in Rhode Island or in their town. Almost every participant cited a lack of easy access for local information compared to national information.
  • Overall, the findings of the survey suggested that Rhode islanders are generally happy with their state and local news outlets but there is a disconnect between what is available and what Rhode Islanders would like. In addition, the needs of urban and non-white populations are often unmet. The survey also suggests that the majority of Rhode Islanders do not seek to learn new points of view from their news, but mainly use news to reinforce their previously held positions.
    • Respondents found it easier to find news about the state than their local communities. This was particularly true among young and non-white respondents.
    • Older Rhode Islanders are the most content with the news coverage available.
    • Trust in Rhode Island news outlets is fairly low.
    • Rhode Islanders have mixed feelings about how well the media are doing at representing people like themselves: 40% of those surveyed felt that the interests, ideas, and opinions of people like them were underrepresented in the state and local news media. Urban and non-White respondents were also slightly more likely than their counterparts to feel underrepresented.
    • The vast majority of respondents reported a preference for stories that feature a combination of people like themselves and people who are very different from themselves.
    • Only 40% of respondents said that “dealing fairly with all sides” was an important aspect of the news and only 23% of respondents prioritize understanding people from different walks of life.
    • An overwhelming number of respondents felt that it was important that journalists understand the history of the community and be personally engaged in the local community.
    • Rhode Islanders also felt that it was very important for state and local journalists to serve as watchdogs over Rhode Island’s elected officials but many respondents felt that the media could do more in this area.
    • Very few people reported trusting social media or that journalists presence on social media was important to them.
    • News coverage about the state and its local communities leaves Rhode Islanders feeling frustrated and sad. While people reported feeling more positively after reading local news, a majority of respondents still reported that the local news leaves them with a negative feeling.
    • Urban residents also were distinctive. Particularly noteworthy was their higher interest in local schools, compared with their non-urban counterparts.
    • There was a large gap between Hispanic and Non-Hispanic respondents in the use of online blogs and listservs for getting state and local information. “Very frequent” use of these platforms was much higher among Hispanic respondents.