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Democracy on TV: Don’t blink

Oct 21, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Here’s a story you probably won’t see on the evening news. A new study by the Lear Center Local News Archive backs up what anyone who watches TV newscasts already knew: Election coverage is scarce on the local news.
The study, conducted in late September and early this month, found that fewer than half of the newscasts on local stations in major markets carried any election stories. Never mind that this could be one of the most pivotal elections in recent memory, not to mention one of the most interesting, with control of Congress hanging in the balance while the nation prepares for war.
And never mind that the world supposedly changed forever a little more than a year ago, that one of the few good things to come out of 9/11 was supposed to be that Americans and their institutions, including broadcasters, are now more enlightened and attentive, more focused on real issues and less concerned with so-called celebrity “news” and the other fluff that has come to characterize TV news.
The Lear study handily puts that notion to rest, revealing that even those newscasts that did offer election coverage-and again, they are in the minority-didn’t include much of it. The average campaign story carried by local stations was about 80 seconds long, and fewer than 20 percent of those stories included any sound bites from candidates. The average length of a sound bite was a puny 9.5 seconds.
Even with key battles taking place nationwide, candidates for Congress are having trouble getting coverage on local news, probably the most important source of information for most Americans. Stations seem more interested in letting their ad departments sell time to those candidates than in giving it away free on the news.
And we wonder why no one shows up to vote anymore. When negative campaign ads, not issue-based news reports, become the main source of information on candidates, the electorate becomes disillusioned, alienated and apathetic. Which is exactly what is happening, with voter turnout rates dipping into single-digit percentages in some local elections.
It’s a tired refrain, bemoaning that TV news is no longer the responsible partner in democracy that it was 40 years ago, that corporate priorities have shifted the focus of news departments from public service to the bottom line. But really, haven’t things gotten just a little out of hand? In our callous pursuit of short-term profits, we seem to be pushing our precious democracy perilously close to the edifice.
If 9/11 proved anything, it proved that the decisions we make as a nation-decisions made by leaders elected by those few Americans who still vote-are crucial to our survival.
Broadcasters were full of patriotic rhetoric in the weeks after 9/11, when they all made sacrifices that helped the nation heal. Now their credibility is on the line. It’s time for the TV industry to prove there was something behind that rhetoric and get serious about its vital role in the ongoing process of democracy. Acknowledging that there’s an election coming up would be a good place to start.