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Oklahoma news deserts: Data shows voting sagged in ‘orphan counties'

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Kaylea Hutson-Miller
/
Oklahoma Watch
Ottawa County precinct worker Kay Boman Harvey helps Ronnie Barnes feed his ballots into the voting machine at the Miami Civic Center in this 2020 file photo. Ottawa County, located in Oklahoma's northeast corner, gets its TV news from the Joplin, Mo. market. It ranked 74th among the state's 77 counties for voter turnout, with less than half of its registered voters casting a ballot in the 2022 gubernatorial election.

Of the 15 counties with the lowest voter turnout in the Nov. 8 election, 13 are located outside of the Oklahoma City and Tulsa media markets.

Tucked away in the southeast corner of the state, McCurtain County residents receive television news from Shreveport, Louisiana.

Shreveport is a slightly closer drive than Oklahoma City or Tulsa, and its stations rarely delve into Oklahoma politics. With statewide newspaper circulation a thing of the past, state Rep. Eddy Dempsey said his constituents mostly rely on spotty broadband service to keep up with developments at the state Capitol.

“The sad part is, if I lived another mile west I’d be able to get them [Oklahoma news channels],” said Dempsey, a Republican from Valliant whose district covers all of McCurtain County and southern LeFlore County. “If I used my address in Oklahoma City I could maybe get those channels. But why should I have to do that when I live in the state of Oklahoma?”

McCurtain County is an orphan county, a term coined by researchers to describe areas that receive little to no in-state public affairs coverage or political advertisements because of their media market placement.

Orphan counties can be found scattered across Oklahoma. Cimarron, Texas and Beaver counties in the panhandle receive television news from Amarillo, Texas. Stations in Fort Smith, Arkansas serve Sequoyah and Le Flore counties.

These residents often lack a daily newspaper or local digital outlet to fall back on, making it difficult for them to stay civically engaged with state politics. Studies show people who lack access to information are less likely to participate in elections.

Of the 15 counties with the lowest voter turnout in the Nov. 8 election, 13 are located outside of the Oklahoma City and Tulsa media markets. Just two so-called orphan counties saw voter turnout above the statewide average of 50.35%.

While media coverage issues can arise both in rural and urban areas, the problem is especially glaring in orphan counties, Northwestern Medill School of Journalism visiting professor Penelope Muse Abernathy said. A 2020 Pew Research Center survey found 68% of American adults watch at least some television news.

“There is a real digital and economic divide in this country that has basically put us into two categories,” said Abernathy, who has extensively studied news deserts. “There are the journalistic haves who have access to a good variety of news, and journalism have-nots, who have very limited access to the sort of quality news and information they need in order to make wise everyday decisions.”

Uncompetitive elections often compound the issue of scarce information access, said Jennifer Lawless, a politics professor at the University of Virginia who has researched the effect of media coverage on political participation. When media outlets aren’t covering certain races and voters can’t easily access information about their elected officials, they’re less likely to challenge an incumbent, she said.

“The lack of attention in local politics leads to a lack of accountability beyond just the participation,” Lawless said. “It makes it easier for people, both good and bad politicians, to hold onto their seats.”

Voters in just five of the 24 counties that receive some or all of their television news coverage from another state elected their state representative in November.

Changing Markets Possible, But Difficult

The Federal Communications Commission uses data from Nielsen Holdings, a private media analytics and data company, to create 210 geographic service boundaries nationwide. With few exceptions, satellite and cable television companies are bound by these placements.

Disgruntled orphan county residents in southwest Colorado and northeast Georgia have successfully petitioned the FCC in recent years to allow in-state broadcasters to reach them. Though feasible, the appeals process requires clearing several technical and bureaucratic hurdles, from ensuring satellite providers can broadcast the signals to getting the approval of stations in affected markets.

Abernathy, who lives in an orphan county in North Carolina, said hundreds of people in her area signed a petition seeking access to an in-state television news station. The request ultimately went nowhere, she said.

Dempsey, who previously served as a field representative for U.S. Rep. Markwayne Mullin, said he has discussed the issue with the senator-elect. Though optimistic Mullin will represent southeast Oklahoma well in the Senate, Dempsey said he doesn’t expect any change in the immediate future.

“This issue is just low, low on the totem pole,” he said.

Better Broadband a Solution?

When Rep. Rick West, R-Heavener, made his first run for state House in 2016, information about state politics in far eastern Oklahoma was scarce, he said.

“One of the reasons I ran is we didn’t know what was going on in Oklahoma City,” said West, who won a fourth two-year term unopposed this year. “So I made some promises to write an article every week in the papers and be on the radio to let people know what’s happening.”

In addition to the expanded local media presence, West said improved internet access has made it easier for his constituents, most of whom receive television news from Fort Smith, to keep up with legislation via social media or the state House website.

“It’s still not like having eight different stations in Oklahoma City and every one of them is talking about stuff,” he said. “But it’s not as bad as it was seven or eight years ago.”

State officials hope to have at least 95% of the state covered with reliable and affordable high-speed internet service by the end of 2028. In late September, Oklahoma lawmakers allocated nearly $550 million in American Rescue Plan Act dollars to fund rural broadband projects across the state.

Better broadband service could make it easier for more Oklahomans to track a bill or follow their elected officials on Facebook. That is still no substitute for in-depth local coverage that has become increasingly rare over the past two decades, Lawless said.

“The online news services that are out there are heavily concentrated in urban areas, many of which already have some semblance of a local news environment,” she said. “So they’re not necessarily filling in for a local paper, they’re existing in addition to it. And they’re not popping up in places where people could use them the most.”

Because most orphan counties are sparsely populated and located near or along a border, Abernathy said a solution will likely require a motivation beyond profit.

“Nobody wants to pay to reach those people, there’s no business sense,” Abernathy said. “But is there a civic obligation? That’s the question.”

Oklahoma Watch, at oklahomawatch.org, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that covers public-policy issues facing the state.

Oklahoma Watch is a non-profit organization that produces in-depth and investigative journalism on important public-policy issues facing the state. Oklahoma Watch is non-partisan and strives to be balanced, fair, accurate and comprehensive. The reporting project collaborates on occasion with other news outlets. Topics of particular interest include poverty, education, health care, the young and the old, and the disadvantaged.
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