The News Philadelphians Use: Insights from a new study of the city’s news media landscape

Crime and safety were mentioned by 70% of residents and also appeared in, on average, 33% of articles per outlet.

By Shawn Mooring

February 28, 2023

Correction: An earlier version of this article included incorrect data from the Center for Media Engagement that misidentified Philadelphia locations most mentioned by local outlets. This version includes the updated map image and links to the Center for Media Engagement’s corrected version of the full report

Five years ago, The Lenfest Institute for Journalism conducted an in-depth analysis of Philadelphians’ news and information needs. The world has changed a great deal since 2018, but the crucial need for access to trustworthy sources of accurate news and information has become even more pressing. Whether seeking information on the reliability of potential life-saving vaccines during a global pandemic, searching for factual and representative reporting during a worldwide reckoning on race, or trying to distinguish the truth from a deluge of misinformation during an era of unprecedented political partisanship, reliable news, and information sources are essential for guiding us through these challenging times.

Today, The Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin, with support from The Lenfest Institute and Independence Public Media Foundation, is publishing “The News Philadelphians Use: Analyzing the Local Media Landscape, a new report based on a survey that asked a representative group of more than 1,500 Philadelphians about their media habits to provide a portrait of the Philadelphia news media landscape. The survey explored the issues that are important to them and how local media are, or are not, covering these issues and their communities. Their answers were then compared to actual coverage from more than 80 local news sites through the analysis of more than 60,000 news stories.

The Lenfest Institute recognizes the crucial role that local news plays in keeping communities informed and engaged. While national and international headlines may dominate our social media feeds, it is often local news that most directly impacts people’s daily lives. Philadelphia is the sixth largest city in the country. It is diverse, with many neighborhoods and unique identities and issues. Establishing a clear understanding of the news and information needs of the city’s residents is imperative to ensure that media outlets are meeting the needs of their audience, promoting civic engagement and participation, and promoting transparency and accountability in government and other institutions.

In analyzing the survey responses, researchers identified addressable gaps in the media ecosystem despite survey respondents’ overall feeling that local media did slightly better than average in representing their neighborhoods. 

The Institute and Center for Media Engagement hosted three free virtual community meetings to discuss key findings from the report.

Here are some key takeaways from the research findings. Click here to read the full report and details on how the survey was conducted. 

Coverage gaps

The study’s content analysis sought to address areas where the media covered a topic or region less often than needed based upon audience interests or location. These areas create opportunities for news organizations to develop new beats or expand their existing coverage. 

For the purposes of this research, Philadelphia was divided into seven regions based on demographic data and community input. Based on Census data, the most populous regions are North Philly and Northeast Philly. But the region that received the most coverage was South Philly / Center City. 

Additionally, residents weighed in on the most important issues they would like to see covered in the media. Crime and safety were mentioned by 70% of residents and also appeared in, on average, 33% of articles per outlet. The second most mentioned area was sanitation, trash removal, and cleanliness, which was mentioned by 34% of residents. Despite this demand, these issues were only mentioned in only 3% of articles per outlet.

Other notable coverage gaps included:

  • Traffic and parking – mentioned by 25% of residents and appeared in an average of 5% of articles per outlet
  • Drugs – mentioned by 19% of residents and appeared in an average of 5% of articles per outlet
  • Infrastructure, roads, and transportation – mentioned by 19% of residents and appeared in an average of 5% of articles per outlet
  • Poor, poverty, and homelessness – mentioned by 13% of residents and appeared in an average of 4% of articles per outlet

Perceived gaps

While Philadelphia has a diverse and highly active media landscape, improving trust among audiences, portraying communities accurately, and making sure coverage is accessible is still a priority for news organizations. The Center for Media Engagement also researched perceived coverage gaps, which occur when the public is dissatisfied with some aspect of media coverage. 

Residents overall gave mediocre ratings when asked about how well the media are covering their communities and below-average ratings of issue-based coverage. West Philly and Southwest Philly residents expressed the most dissatisfaction with media coverage, which they felt was too negative. Still, many Southwest Philadelphia residents also expressed interest in getting involved with journalism and reporting on public meetings.

The issues that received the lowest ratings for their coverage were infrastructure, roads, and transportation; sanitation, trash removal, and cleanliness; the poor, poverty, and homelessness; and traffic and parking. 

Even when issues are being covered, Philadelphians across regions indicated a need for solutions-based coverage, especially women, younger residents, and self-described Republicans.

Where Philadelphians are getting their news

The study asked Philadelphians where they usually get their news, with television coming in first place at 69%, followed closely by social media at 68% and family, friends, and colleagues at 59%. Some of these sources varied by neighborhood.

The survey also asked respondents to share which outlets they’ve used in the past 30 days. Several outlets target particular areas or highlight the issues that the respondents said were important to them, but those publications are not being used widely by the respondents, creating what are known as use gaps.

For example, when asked if “there aren’t enough stories about my neighborhood in the news media,” West Philadelphians typically indicated modest agreement. But respondents rarely mentioned West Philly Local when given the opportunity to name local media outlets that they used. 

Use gaps also exist for issue-based coverage. Grid Magazine had higher percentages of articles related to sanitation, trash removal, and cleanliness (42%), infrastructure, roads, and transportation (19%), and traffic and parking (19%) — topics which residents indicated were highly important to them. Similarly, The Philadelphia Citizen had higher percentages of coverage on the poor, poverty, and homelessness (42%) and infrastructure, roads, and transportation (16%), but not many respondents reported using Grid or The Citizen in the last 30 days. 

Recommendations for addressing gaps

Identifying gaps in coverage can help news organizations tailor their reporting to residents’ needs or do more outreach to communities, but this does not mean there should be a one-to-one correspondence between the issues mentioned by the media and the issues prioritized by the public. One limitation of this data is that residents were asked about important issues facing their neighborhoods, but local media is also responsible for covering issues beyond individual neighborhoods. 

It also is important to note that this report only examines the quantity of coverage and residents’ ratings of local media, not the quality or effectiveness of that journalism. Although crime and safety were the most mentioned topics and local media is already covering them at higher rates, other research suggests that media coverage of crime and safety could over-emphasize the danger to residents and make them think that the issue is more important than it should be. 

The research is designed to provide some indication of issues that may warrant more coverage given how often they were identified by the public as important for their neighborhoods, and researchers recommend news organizations use this data to rethink coverage priorities. Similarly, this study only identified where the use gaps exist, not why residents are not utilizing certain sources or what can be done to make residents more aware of existing coverage that relates to their interests. 

Funding the media

Local media in Philadelphia is supported by a number of sources, including audience revenue, advertising, and grantmaking from organizations like The Lenfest Institute. 

The survey asked half of the respondents to indicate if they would donate $10 per month to support the mission of a local news organization providing news about their neighborhood online for free and for anyone to access, and asked the other half of the respondents to share if they would pay a fee of $10 per month to access a local news organization that provided news about their neighborhood.

On average, Philadelphians indicated that they were unlikely to pay for news. They were more likely, however, to say that they would donate their money to a local news site than they would be to pay a fee for local news.

Overall, 12% of Philadelphians reported that they currently subscribe or donate to a news organization — 5% mentioned The Philadelphia Inquirer, 4% The New York Times, 2% WHYY, and 1% each mentioned The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. Other organizations were mentioned less often.

These insights, along with all the data gleaned from “The News Philadelphians Use: Analyzing the Local Media Landscape,” provide valuable guidance for both the Institute and the news outlets we help support to better serve the needs of the community. By understanding the issues and topics that are most important to Philadelphians, news organizations can tailor their coverage to promote civic engagement and participation, ensure transparency and accountability in government, and facilitate informed decision-making. In a time when accurate and reliable news and information are more important than ever, this study underscores the critical role that local news media plays in serving the needs of their audience and promoting a healthy democracy.

Hayley Slusser contributed reporting.

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