Study: Stations dropped ball in election coverage

Oct 21, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Coverage of political campaigns and elections is sorely lacking at television stations around the country, according to a study released last week by the Lear Center Local News Archive.
The study analyzed more than 2,400 local news broadcasts from the top 50 markets from Sept. 18 through Oct. 4 and concluded that just under half of them contained local election coverage. Of those, only one-fifth included the candidates talking. The Lear Center Local News Archive is a collaboration between the Norman Lear Center at the Annenberg School at the University of Southern California and the political science department at the University of Wisconsin.
“I think it says most news directors think covering politics is ratings poison,” said Martin Kaplan, associate dean of USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and director of the Norman Lear Center. Americans are cynical about politics, and television reporters have largely become generalists, he said. “So covering politics may seem too hard,” he added.
Such coverage is, however, essential when Americans get most of their information from local TV news, he said. “I think the more information [people] get about public life-campaigns and elections-the healthier it is for democracy,” he said.
Political stories can be good for ratings, said Sylvia Teague, director of Reliable Resources, a service and a Web site through the Norman Lear Center, www.reliablere sources.org, dedicated to fostering political coverage at TV stations. Several stations that received the Walter Cronkite Award for Excellence in Broadcast TV Political Journalism from USC’s Annenberg School for coverage of the 2000 elections have enjoyed ratings success since, including WNBC-TV in New York, KING-TV in Seattle and WGME-TV in Portland, Maine, Ms. Teague said.
Successful and watchable political coverage necessitates an innovative touch, she said. WNBC, for instance, followed a local woman in her quest to find an apartment in the city around the same time as the mayoral race last year. “So you cared about issues and were prepared to be pulled into the candidates’ views on housing,” Ms. Teague said. “I think we as journalists have an obligation to find new ways of telling the story to make it interesting.”
KGUN-TV, in Tucson, Ariz., stepped up its political coverage during the September primaries and the pending November election. The station profiled all 45 candidates for primary races during the month preceding the race and also aired four- to five-minute debates.
In addition, the station is running a “Coffee With Candidates” segment in which each of the remaining candidates for the main races talks with local community members about the issues, said Thor Wasbotten, news director for the station. “Election coverage is not a burden,” he said. “It’s a responsibility we have to help the community be involved in the political process and to do that you have to be creative.”
KUSA-TV in Denver has relied on its Web site, www.9news.com, to disseminate information on local races. The station streamed a debate between Senate candidates online last week before it planned to televise the taped debate over the weekend.
Some stations fared better than average in the study. Of the stations committed to “best practices” political coverage through a volunteer consortium organized by the Pew Charitable Trusts, 50 percent of their broadcasts contained campaign stories. In addition, 45 percent of broadcasts on stations that provide free airtime to candidates included campaign coverage.