Respondents across Chicago were asked to list a few words that describe the way local news reports depict their neighborhoods Credit: Center for Media Engagement

South- and west-siders are more likely to find news coverage of their neighborhoods lacking. North-siders, meanwhile, tend to think local news outlets are doing an OK job. That’s according to a recent survey that asked 900 Chicagoans about where they get their local news and about their attitudes toward the coverage. The study was conducted by the University of Texas at Austin’s Center for Media Engagement and funded by the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.

Nearly 60 percent of respondents citywide cited “crime and law enforcement” as the most important issue facing their neighborhood. But when asked about their perceptions of news coverage of the issue, respondents on the south and west sides were more likely than north-siders to say that the media is doing a poor job.

Credit: Center for Media Engagement

The survey also asked respondents to describe the way in which local news media depicted their neighborhood using two or three words. The researchers then created word clouds to illustrate the frequency of the terms mentioned. Those surveyed on the north side and downtown most frequently said the media depicts their areas as “safe,” “diverse,” “expensive,” and “quiet.” West-siders said local news depicted their neighborhoods as “violent” and “poor.” The words “gangs” and “drugs” also often came up in news reports about their area, they said. Meanwhile south-siders said news outlets depict their neighborhoods as “city worker,” “dangerous,” and “poor.”

Credit: Center for Media Engagement

Nearly 70 percent of the west-siders and more than half of the south-siders surveyed thought that stories about their neighborhoods were “too negative,” while only a quarter of respondents from the north side and downtown felt similarly.

When asked about how well local media use sources in their neighborhoods, half of west-side respondents said that news stories “quote the wrong people” when covering their neighborhoods. More than 40 percent of south-siders said the same, while just about a quarter of north-side respondents shared that perception.

Credit: Center for Media Engagement

The survey also polled respondents about where they get their news and whether they’re willing to pay for it. Nearly 80 percent of respondents said they watched TV for local news, or talked to family and friends. Meanwhile, fewer than half cited printed newspapers as a news source. Social media, websites, and apps were also frequently cited as sources for local news. Just 17 percent of respondents said that they subscribe or donate to local news outlets, and the rate was far higher on the north side (25 percent) than on the south and west sides (13 percent and 9 percent, respectively). However, when asked if they’d be more likely to donate to a news outlet or pay a fee for the news, respondents were almost twice as likely to opt for the donation.

More than three quarters of those surveyed said they’d never had interactions with a journalist in the past, and just 16 percent of respondents said they’d ever attended an event hosted by a news organization. However, when asked if they themselves would want to volunteer to report on a public meeting in the city (such as one held by the City Council or Board of Education), 67 percent of west-siders, 64 percent of south-siders, and 43 percent of north-siders said they would likely do so.

At an event hosted by City Bureau on January 18, the authors of the report presented their findings and led discussions with some 100 attendees about the meaning and implications of the data.

At least one attendee thought the researchers should’ve analyzed the way local news outlets depicted different neighborhoods, rather than relying on news consumers’ impressions. Angela Ford, a middle-aged south-sider whose nonprofit T.A.G. Foundation helped digitize the Chicago Defender archives, says she’s collected data over the years on the adjectives and images local news outlets use to describe neighborhoods across the city. She’s found that depictions of black neighborhoods are overwhelmingly negative.

“If I’m gonna be happy about my life, I can’t read Chicago press,” Ford says. “I’m a native Chicagoan and all of a sudden we’re ghetto trash. My neighborhoods have never looked bad—but, God, when I read the paper I’m scared to death.”

Ford feels that the survey didn’t go far enough to take news media to task for coverage that she believes is often unfair and biased. She thought the word clouds created by the researchers could suggest that people on the south and west sides are generally bitter or unhappy. “I wish that the survey would have created an authentic baseline of the news itself,” she says.

As Ford sees it, the remedy for south and west-siders’ disparate experience of local news is less biased news reporting and more black journalists and black-run media organizations. “I’m really interested in how black journalism can serve the black people. I think that the narrative is so negative in the general [media] market that it’s up to us to promote our own narratives.”