Americans are awash in information from myriad sources — newspapers, magazines, radio, TV and the exponentially expanding digital galaxy. But often the right information is not getting to the right people, a new study shows. "News deserts" are beginning to crop up across the American landscape.
The research was conducted for the Federal Communications Commission, which wanted to take stock of people's basic information needs and see how they are being met.
Despite the proliferation of technology that seems to shrink the world by the hour, Americans’ lives are still grounded in the communities where they live, and they require a set of basic information to navigate daily life, said Lewis Friedland, one of the study researchers.
It appears that those needs are not being met because of a disconnect between available communications vehicles and the audiences that need that information, said Friedland, a professor in the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
As an example, Friedland cited a tornado that struck in Texas. Officials knew the tornado was coming but could not alert many members of the community because there was no local Spanish-language radio or TV station in the threatened area.
"We're seeing news deserts start to emerge in different areas of the U.S.," Friedland told BusinessNewsDaily. "The problem is when you get these gaps in local areas, it's like any other ecology: You get a vicious spiral. People become less informed and then they become less engaged."
Friedland, Ernest Wilson, dean of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, and Philip Napoli, a professor at Fordham University, led the research, which the FCC commissioned in order to identify the American public’s information needs, as well as barriers into participation in the communication industry.
"We wanted to look at the kinds of things that most Americans in most American communities would need to live," Friedland said.
The study determined there are forms of information necessary for people to live safe and healthy lives; have full access to educational, employment and business opportunities; and fully participate in civic life in their communities. To meet those needs, communities need access to information about emergencies and risks; health and welfare; quality of local schools; transportation, including alternatives and schedules; economic opportunities, including job listings and training; the environment, along with air and water quality; and civic and political information.
Gaps in the information process are not due to a lack of raw material. "The question is if it's being offered in an accessible and useful form," Friedland said.