Beyond governments, American society has always depended on a wide array of civic institutions to provide critical information to constituents, hold governments accountable, and support families and workers to be healthy, educated, and productive. This section examines civic institutions–and whether they are fair, effective, and healthy. 

This third issue of Pandemic to Prosperity focuses on the ability of people to access information they need to make informed decisions during a pandemic. We examine local news and internet access to assess the ability of communities to receive critical information and remain connected in a world that is dramatically more digital than just a few months ago. 

Indicators in this section

  • Counties with no or only one newspaper in Covid hotspots
  • Internet access by state

More than half of counties experiencing high rates of new cases of Covid are in news deserts, meaning a critical vehicle for trusted information during the pandemic is absent.

Counties with no or only one newspaper (often only a weekly) that also have high Covid rates

News deserts as of 2020, Covid cases as of Sep 17, 2020

Source: UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media; New York Times Covid-19 data; inspired by Brookings research
Note: Counties with ≥50 cases/100k people in the past week are classified as “high rate” of new cases for this analysis. Blank counties on the map have Covid rates below threshold.

Trusted local news sources are key to the success of public health campaigns, holding local governments accountable, and for getting word out about Covid outbreaks attributed to contact at local bars, workplaces, group quarters, and weddings. Local newspapers are also bastions of normalcy for communities missing the social connections they hold dear. In September, for example, the Minneapolis Star Tribune endeavored to “offer a small break and bring a little joy” by creating a 10-day virtual state fair, complete with a talent contest, concerts including Lyle Lovett and Lucinda Williams, and a virtual beer garden. They even continued the paper’s long tradition of selling fair-themed lip balm (flavored as pickles, ketchup, and bacon in past years). This time they sold lip balm via drive-thru and a flavor tuned to local palettes: cheese curds.2 

When the Covid rate passes 50 new cases per 100k a week, communities are considered to be on the brink of runaway infection rates, if public health measures are not rapidly implemented and followed.3 More than half of counties that are above that pandemic threshold are also in what experts describe as “local news deserts” that have either no newspaper or only one (often a weekly or a thinly staffed daily).4 

The news desert situation is getting worse with the pandemic, with Poynter research identifying 50 closures of local newsrooms due to the Covid crisis.5 

Levels of internet access remained unchanged from 2018 to 2019, with Southern states suffering the most from lack of access.  

Internet access by state, 2019

Percent of households with broadband, dial-up, or other internet access, excluding cellular-only 

Source: United States Census Bureau

Even as the importance of the internet has grown, new data indicates that very little progress has been made on the expansion of internet access throughout states.  Just released Census data on 2019 internet access shows that 11 states are without internet in more than 30% of households, a statistic that has not changed from 2018. Similarly, states with the highest prevalence of internet are still without internet in 1 in 5 households. 

As the school year starts and many maintain virtual learning, households without internet access are at a significant disadvantage. Lack of internet access disproportionately impacts Black children’s ability to receive the same level of education: Brookings reports that “the educational achievement gap has widened for Black students by 15 to 20 percent since the onset of school closures. Black K-12 students who remain disconnected from learning will experience 10.3 months of cognitive losses and for low-income students that number will be more than one year. Students of color who are less likely to have broadband will also be disproportionately targeted for ‘virtual truancy,’ and have an increased likelihood to drop out as school systems are pressed to adapt old learning paradigms for the digital age.”1 Equitable internet access for all students has become a crucial aspect in the path forward from this pandemic. 

Additionally, pre-existing conditions may worsen without access to medical care through telehealth.2,3 Internet access also enables residents to be informed about Covid updates and be civically engaged. But many rural areas – and tribal communities in particular – are less prepared for this rapid transition.4


Counties with no or only one newspaper (often only a weekly) that also have high Covid rates

  1. “Three Months In, Many Americans See Exaggeration, Conspiracy Theories and Partisanship in COVID-19 News.” Mitchell, Jurkowitz, Oliphant, and Shearer. Pew Research Center. June 2020.
  2. “Hispanic Resource Council launches COVID outreach campaign.” Layton. ChicoSol. August 2020.
  3. Personal communication with infectious disease specialist Dr. William Pewen, August 2020
  4. “News Deserts And Ghost Newspapers: Will Local News Survive?” UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media. 2020.
  5. “The coronavirus has closed more than 50 local newsrooms across America. And counting.” Hare. Poynter. August 2020.

Internet Access by State

  1. “How courageous schools partnering with local communities can overcome digital inequalities during COVID-19.” Lee. Brookings. September, 2020. 
  2. “Impact of the digital divide in the age of COVID-19.” Ramsetty, Adams. Oxford Academic. April, 2020. 
  3. “COVID breathes life into North Carolina’s rural telehealth, but broadband remains an obstacle.” Engel-Smith. North Carolina Health News. May, 2020. 
  4. “For tribal lands ravaged by COVID-19, broadband access is a matter of life and death.” Blackwater. AZ Central. 

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