DURHAM, N.C. -- Knowing that voters have seen news reports about problems caused by failing public infrastructure in their district makes local officials who face competitive re-elections more inclined to support new spending to repair or replace the aging structures, a survey of city and county officials in 49 states shows.

“Our research shows that media coverage of the everyday problems caused by water main breaks or other infrastructure failures helps officials justify making costly upgrades and improvements,” said Megan Mullin, professor of environmental politics at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment, who led the study.

“This really drives home the importance of local media as a community resource,” she said.

The survey’s results suggest that if reporters weren’t out there documenting the impacts of infrastructure decline, elected officials might believe that voters would punish them in the next election for spending that seemed unnecessary. That belief, said Mullin, can be a powerful disincentive for investing in prevention against future harm -- even if the official understands that inaction now will likely lead to even greater problems later.

News stories about burst pipes and failing grids make visible the long-term benefits of infrastructure spending, increasing politicians’ confidence that voters will support the investment.

Mullin and her coauthor, Katy Hansen of the nonprofit Environmental Policy Innovation Center, published the peer-reviewed findings of their survey Oct. 20 in the journal American Political Science Review.

The survey queried 650 city or county officials nationwide. Because it can be tricky to get true behavioral responses from a standard survey, Mullin and Hansen constructed theirs as a vignette experiment that asked the officials to imagine themselves in a scenario where they had been told their aging water system is deteriorating. Water mains were breaking across the community and consultants had recommended a long-overdue major overhaul that was going to be costly. How likely, the survey asked, would the official be to approve the project?

The vignettes sent to half of the officials, chosen at random, contained one additional nugget of information: The water main breaks had received prominent coverage in the local newspaper, allowing voters in the broader community to learn about the problem.

While this added information increased support for the project only marginally overall, it carried considerable weight among the subset of officials who faced competitive upcoming re-elections, nudging them from a position of likely opposition to the project to one of likely support for it.

“Politicians who worry about re-election hesitate to raise costs for their constituents, even if they think it’s needed,” Mullin said. “News coverage helps give them political cover.”

The same response wasn’t seen among officials in safer seats, who worry less about re-election.

It’s important to note that water systems are a type of infrastructure that is broadly viewed by politicians and voters alike as essential, Mullin said. News coverage may not have the same impact if the spending is for projects like schools or housing, where there is less common ground.

This caveat noted, the survey’s findings are still a sign that local news coverage matters, she said.

“We know from past studies that coverage of politicians can make them more attentive to short-term costs and electoral paybacks for their actions,” Mullin said. “Here, we show that coverage of nonpolitical news has its own political effects—lengthening politicians’ time horizons and getting them to think about investments that have long-term payoffs.

“At a time of shrinking newsrooms and nationwide declines in local news coverage, the loss of coverage about infrastructure failures could make it harder to keep infrastructure intact,” she said.

CITATION: “Local News and the Electoral Incentive to Invest in Infrastructure,” Megan Mullin and Katy Hansen. American Political Science Review, Oct. 20, 2022. DOI: 10.1017/S0003055422001083