Cushman: Defend Local News This Legislative Session


Kevin Cody

A view of the Utah State Capitol Building in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Aug. 21, 2021. (Photo by Kevin Cody | The Daily Utah Chronicle)

By KC Ellen Cushman, Opinion Writer


As a writer, covering Utah’s legislative session has its challenges. Per the Utah constitution, our sessions cannot exceed 45 days.  This breakneck speed means that from the process of pitching to writing, the bills I’m covering can substantially change. All Utah journalists face this challenge. Without diligent attention, legislation doesn’t always get the full weight of public scrutiny.

The swiftness of our legislative session makes it harder to hold our leaders accountable. Our local journalists work hard to ensure good coverage of Utah politics. But some Utah legislators would rather work without accountability or coverage that shows the truth of what they advocate for. It is our civic responsibility to support the local journalists that shed light on what our leaders do — especially when they try to operate in the dark.

Speaker Wilson’s Criticism

On Jan. 28, Brad Wilson, the Speaker of the Utah House, publicly criticized “one Utah news organization,” presumably the Salt Lake Tribune. Rep. Wilson claimed the news organization wanted to “create division in our state.”

One comment denigrating a local news agency might seem inconsequential. But this dialogue from a senior member of the legislature shows that our legislature doesn’t value the critical role the press plays in informing the public about our government’s actions.

Wilson’s quote also echoes anti-press dialogue that was popularized during the Trump administration. The Committee to Protect Journalists explains how the Trump administration attacked freedom of the press through interference in media owners’ businesses and harassing journalists. However, Trump’s “most effective ploy” had undermined the credibility of our journalists through anti-press dialogue, such as repeatedly calling reports “fake news.”

Our democracy is under fire from false cries of election fraud, insurrectionists storming the nation’s capitol to fight against the results of a democratic election, and ramped-up voter suppression in 2021. Now more than ever, our elected officials must work to protect our democracy. Wilson’s quote is far from inconsequential because his attack on the Salt Lake Tribune also attacks the critical role local journalism plays in cultivating democracy at the local level.

Local Journalism’s Decline

Through reporting on what our government does, the press makes it possible for constituents to play an active role in holding politicians accountable. Freedom of the press acts as a cornerstone for a healthy democracy. Even with this freedom enshrined in the constitution, the U.S. still ranks 44th out of 180 countries in the Press Freedom Index.

In recent years, the U.S. has had hundreds of local news organizations shut their doors. This crisis should alarm all of us, because local news often tells important stories. For instance, the Flint Journal in Michigan picked up stories of residents concerned with their water quality long before those concerns reached national news.

Still, between 2004 and 2018, 1,300 communities lost local news coverage entirely. This damages communities which see lower voter turnout and higher municipality borrowing costs after the death of local journalism.

Utah is privileged to have multiple local news outlets, from Deseret News to the Salt Lake Tribune to other local newspapers for cities like Sandy, Ogden and West Valley. These outlets inform us about what happens in our local politics, giving us the opportunity to tell our leaders what we want from an informed perspective. Without them, Utahns wouldn’t have the information we need to be active and informed citizens.

Supporting Your Local News

After Rep. Wilson’s comments, Michelle Quist, a writer for the Salt Lake Tribune, defended the outlet, saying that in her tenure there, she has never heard anyone with the outlet advocate for creating division. Journalists at outlets like the Salt Lake Tribune provide a crucial service for Utahns. We need to make it our job to stand with them to defend local news, especially when our own leaders publicly attack such a key piece of our democracy.

With the death of local journalism around the country and democracy under attack, it becomes a part of our civic duty to protect our own local news outlets and our ability to engage locally in an informed way. Rather than letting Rep. Wilson’s comment undermine our local news’ integrity, let’s use this as a reminder to support local news outlets like the Salt Lake Tribune.

A 2018 survey by Pew Research showed that only 14% of Americans had paid for local news in the previous year. We can change that here in Utah by changing our New York Times or other national outlet subscription to a local outlet like the Salt Lake Tribune. As college students, we can take this further, asking the University of Utah to replace their offer of a free New York Times subscription with a free subscription to a local news agency.

Most importantly, we must use local news the way our constitution intended — to hold our representatives accountable. When our leaders demonstrate a want to avoid accountability, that should tell us to look closer at what they are doing. When they disparage our reporters, we should read local news articles to see what our legislature is trying to do without us noticing. As Quist put it, “Remember, if there’s division between the government and the people, it’s not because the media is reporting what government is doing. It’s because of what government is doing (or not doing).”


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