Media Chaos: Can Local and Public Media Foster Trust?

Local matters. Despite our reliance on ships crossing massive oceans to deliver our consumer goods—everything from vaccines to video entertainment—globalization is not new, but it has evolved.

Recent developments, such as supply-chain failures, shine a light on how ill-prepared aspects of global interdependency are in navigating the ripples of a worldwide health crisis. This extends to billions of people who rely on untrustworthy information sources like global social media platforms. With business models designed to maximize user engagement and profit (i.e., Facebook), it is not surprising that these companies are being exposed for encouraging the spread of unreliable, and sometimes dangerous, information. If the pandemic doesn’t punctuate the need for reliable information, nothing will.

Local/regional media outlets are different animals, and most are accountable to a regulatory authority. Not only are they licensed, but they have editorial processes (some more rigorous than others). Those regulatory authorities keep an eye on practices that are designed to promote public trust. (The obvious exceptions are authoritarian regimes).

During the pandemic, local and sanctioned media sources had higher news viewership, which may be due to the overall rise in viewership during home confinements. However, if a greater level of trust in these sources (many consumers give local media high “trust scores”) contributes to those gains, it likely comes from the following:

  • Local emergency information
  • Local public service messaging regarding health, public education and civic engagement
  • Local news and entertainment programming aimed at all groups in the community

Local broadcast technical advances have been scarce but that has changed with a spread of hybrid networks and receivers that combine local broadcast and streaming services. The advances provide convenience to consumers and are easier on the bandwidth ecosystems—especially with hybrid systems like ATSC 3.0, HbbTV and other systems under development in Brazil and other regions.

Some ways in which the new technical tools could help local broadcasters enhance their trust quotient with local viewers include:

  • ATSC 3.0 broadcasters have the ability to enhance live reporting with text and graphic information from local government, utility and other sources on a single screen during a weather-, civic- or health-related emergency. More importantly, local broadcasters are duty bound by the use of their broadcast licenses to adhere to certain community rules.
  • Local media have been among the few places to get trusted community-based public health information during the pandemic. This includes vaccination locations, virus-spread projections, individual hospital capacity data and masking regulations by individual districts.
  • Addressing news, civic and entertainment programming to all groups in the area helps to breed a sense of community. The same kinds of tools for emergency information can be used to supplement live broadcasts with graphics or text in multiple languages. In addition, the greater capacity the new systems afford results in an ability to deliver niche programming to a particular community. For example, in Boise, Idaho, Evoca TV offers a hybrid terrestrial/streaming “skinny bundle” pay TV service. This pioneering service provides the local Basque community with dedicated programming for Evoca TV subscribers. Boise’s Basque community numbers about 15,000 and the increased bandwidth realized through the new ATSC 3.0 system promotes capacity for niche programming.
  • These new hybrid services can also deliver hyperlocal information. There are local broadcast areas that span over different territories. In the U.S., for example, there are TV markets that cover parts of two or more states. In Tallahassee, Florida, for example, the local WCTV broadcaster is experimenting with a TV app that allows news content to be tagged by zip codes for  ATSC 3.0 transmissions. The station serves the Tallahassee area, as well as two nearby Georgia communities. Targeting different content (or advertising) in the two states allows for hyperlocal customization in a TV market that may have different needs especially when it comes to local and state governments.
  • New tools can foster a different kind of localism for European Public Service Media (PMS) broadcasters. There is an initiative to foster a regional news service from Public Service Media broadcasters by using new tools developed by the European Broadcast Union (EBU) to translate stories into different languages, thus combining the local and the regional.

Media is powerful. Having that power rest in the hands of organizations/companies with no accountability to the public, the truth or a community can broker chaos. The investment in next-generation technologies for local and public TV outlets is an important step in a more stable—and healthier—media environment.