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Staying on top of local elections is only a mouse click away

Trends favoring cable over local news make it conceivable that citizens will increasingly know more about races in distant states where they’re unable to vote than races that will appear on their Nov. 2 ballot, but you can beat the information gap by accessing local election news online.

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Natalie (Talia) Stroud is assistant professor of communication studies and assistant director of the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Participation. She studies the media’s role in shaping people’s political attitudes and behaviors. Her forthcoming book,”Niche News” (Oxford University Press, 2011) explores the causes, consequences and prevalence of partisan selective exposure, and the preference for like-minded political information.

It’s mid-term time again — not only for students at The University of Texas at Austin, but also for the nation. Keeping in the spirit of mid-terms, let me challenge you with a short quiz:

  1. Can you identify at least one of the following people: Christine O’Donnell, Meg Whitman or Sharron Angle?
  2. Would you be able to identify your local congressional representative and his or her opponent?
  3. Would you be able to identify your local state representative and his or her opponent?

If you answered yes to all three questions, bravo!

If you answered no to all three questions: Get thee to the nearest news source!

If you answered yes to the first, but no to the second or the third, I suspect that you are not alone. In fact, I’m willing to bet that there are a lot of others just like you. Why? I think it has something to do with the news media.

To begin with, audiences are abandoning local news in droves. Pew Research reports that regular local newspaper and television news use has declined by more than 20 percent over the past two decades.

As local news loses audiences, cable news is one of the few news sources to boast gains in viewership. In covering the mid-terms, however, cable news mainly focuses on a few prominent races. This year, you’d be hard pressed not to have heard about Christine O’Donnell, Meg Whitman or Sharron Angle.

Trends favoring cable over local news make it conceivable that citizens will increasingly know more about races in distant states where they’re unable to vote than races that will appear on their Nov. 2 ballot.

Even if you regularly turn to local news, however, you still might not be prepared to answer questions 2 and 3. Asking local news to cover all local races is, after all, asking a lot of the local news. Think about the races that would need to be covered based on the elections in your area: governor, mayor, United States representative, county commissioners, coroner, sheriff, treasurer, comptroller, superintendent, members of the Board of Education, justices, judges, state senators and representatives, perhaps even some ballot propositions. And if your local news reaches several counties? The task just doubled, tripled or more. Add to that a shrinking bottom line as ratings and circulations decline, and you’ll quickly develop new sympathy for local news directors and editors.

For those with test anxiety, don’t worry yet. The other news medium that shows gains in use is the Internet. And the potential for the Internet to provide local election information is unparalleled.

Local news audiences would rightfully change the television channel or cancel their newspaper subscriptions if the same story appeared day after day. On the Internet, however, candidate information can stay online for an entire election season. We can access the information at our leisure and learn about the candidates and issues that matter most to us.

Just because information resides online, however, doesn’t mean people will access it. Web sites track how many people access various Web pages. If people don’t access local election information, news outlets and nonprofits have little incentive to post the information.

So if you’re curious about the answers to today’s quiz, you’re lucky – this quiz is “open-book, open-notes.” Check out your local news Web sites, nonprofits such as Project Vote Smart, the Web site for your local county elections office or even the candidates’ Web sites. If you see a feature that is particularly useful, share it! And if you don’t find the information you want, this quiz even lets you send an e-mail requesting more information.

More election posts from Talia Stroud:

Visit the mid-term elections blog series home page for a complete lineup of faculty experts’ analyses.