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Embracing the issues

Mar 18, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Californians have already chosen their gubernatorial candidates for the fall, and by the end of June, half the states will have held their primary elections. Changes in only a few seats could shift control of Congress, and two-thirds of the nation’s governorships will be up for election. How is your TV station going to report on the issues at stake, and whose voices will be part of the political conversation?
We reviewed data collected by the Project for Excellence in Journalism in winter 2000 to find out how local TV news covered the presidential primaries in 15 markets. In some markets, primaries were under way; in others, we captured the weeks leading up to the primaries, a time when many voters are still making up their minds.
What we found wasn’t encouraging: a troubling absence of minority voices, a myopic focus on the horse race, stories representing only a single point of view. And when we compared our findings with data from our 1998 study, we found the way stations cover the presidential primaries isn’t very different from how they cover other local elections.
Out of 335 local campaign stories, only 7 percent included people of color as main participants, expert sources or prospective voters-a trend we saw in small cities but also in markets like New York and Los Angeles. Imagine watching your favorite local TV news for two weeks and never seeing or hearing anyone who looks like you contributing to the political discussion. If minority voters see a reporting strategy that largely ignores them-if they are, in essence, disenfranchised by the media-perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that turnout for minorities is lower than for white voters.
It’s not that local TV ignores people of color completely, it just excludes them from politics. When it comes to staple topics such as crimes and trials, minorities appear in 30 percent and 36 percent of the stories, respectively.
Ninety-two percent of stories covered the candidates by focusing on campaign strategy and tactics; only 3 percent focused on policy positions. Half of these horse-race stories were reporter packages based on campaign events from the daybook. Anchor-read stories on prearranged events represented another 30 percent. What’s more, 13 percent of these local campaign stories were covered using feeds.
This dependence on the daybook to trigger horse-race coverage leads to reporter packages with only a single point of view. One in four campaign stories fits this description. Some stations grouped several of these candidate pieces together in the same broadcast, giving each campaign time to get its message across. But these stations never offered any independent evaluation of the candidates’ positions-abandoning one of the basic roles of the press.
When we looked at anchor-read stories, we found that they were much more likely to contain a mix of viewpoints, but these stories ran only 45 seconds, about half the average length of reporter packages-and barely time to provide any substantive information to voters.
Why do stations cover politics this way? For years, TV consultants have advised stations to avoid politics. It’s cheaper to prioritize topics such as disasters and crime. It’s easier to rely on the campaign calendar for stories. And covering who’s up and who’s down takes fewer resources than delving into the issues.
Looking at newscast ratings, we discovered a few ways TV journalists can do a better job and even gain viewers.
* Be inclusive. None of the tiny fraction of stories featuring nonwhite citizens either as expert commentators or in person-on-the-street interviews were aired by stations losing ratings. Is it any wonder that the stations ignoring a significant portion of their potential audience are the same stations doing poorly in the ratings? Consider all of the people in your community as stakeholders.
* Be enterprising. Even if your local race is high-profile enough to get the network rooting around in your back yard, it still pays to send one of your own reporters out to cover a candidate. We found that stations gaining in the ratings were half as likely as stations losing viewers to cover the local campaign with feed stories.
* Cover the issues, not the tactics. Awareness of poll standings can stimulate voter interest, but those can be reported in a matter of seconds. Use the rest of your time to get into the issues. We found no clear relationship between coverage of the issues and bad ratings-in other words, doing more policy stories won’t harm you. What’s more, we found that policy stories were less likely to be biased in favor of a single candidate, making them useful to a wider audience.
The number of markets we covered was small, and some stations would no doubt argue that we were taping at the wrong time and failed to catch all their in-depth, well-balanced, issues-focused stories. That may be, but the pattern was the same wherever and whenever we looked. And it’s worth considering one simple fact: Most candidates won’t stop trying to win votes just because of bad poll numbers. Campaigns go on and citizens still have to vote no matter how the horse race is going.
Candidates will use a number of tactics to make their case right up until the votes are cast-by issuing policy papers, dissecting their opponents’ records and going on the attack. Why not respond in kind by adding some substance and variety to your political coverage instead of bombarding your viewers with the latest plot twists?