By Pablo Espinoza, Special to TelevisionWeek
Political reporting — two words that have become almost dirty in many local television newsrooms across the country. The two words have become synonymous with boring, not visual, something that turns off viewers and therefore something that you simply do not do in a successful and financially profitable newsroom.
Is political reporting really so deadly, or is that perspective more a result of the news staff and management trying to take the easy way out and focus the ever-decreasing resources available at the local level on stories about Britney’s latest escapade or the crime story du jour?
As we celebrate 60 years of “Meet the Press,” honor it with induction into Broadcasting’s Hall of Fame and laud its commitment to informing the American public at the national level of public policy issues of importance, we as journalists are failing to meet the same needs in our local communities.
Who cares about a state legislator in California trying to pass a bill to provide low-cost prescription medicines? Who cares about an investigation about how public funds would be used to finance the construction of a new NBA arena? Who cares about HMO reform or, for that matter, a complete reform of the health-care system being discussed in the health committee of the state Legislature?
The owners of the airwaves — the public — that’s who cares.
These stories not only can be covered and delivered in a compelling and visual way by creative journalists, but they also can have a positive impact on the bottom line of broadcast operations in local television markets. As “Meet the Press” has become a ratings success on Sunday mornings at the national level, so have other programs with a similar format at a local level.
In California, Univision’s statewide public policy program “Voz y Voto” (Your Voice, Your Vote), saw an increase last year of 300 percent in its ratings over the previous year. As the program found a way to creatively and visually engage viewers on political topics of importance to them, such as immigration reform, it went from having mostly PSAs on its breaks to attracting the likes of Wells Fargo, AT&T, Washington Mutual and other major advertisers. Unbelievably, “Voz y Voto” is the only statewide public policy program airing in California, regardless of language.
KCRA-TV, the NBC affiliate in Sacramento, Calif., and KVUE-TV, the ABC affiliate in Austin, Texas, are just two examples of stations in state capitals that have seen their strong presence in political reporting rewarded with ratings success. In contrast, in Los Angeles, the second-largest television market in the country, only one station, KABC-TV, has a fully staffed bureau at the Capitol in Sacramento.
Reporting on public policy issues is a little bit more challenging than covering a high-speed chase, but it can be done in a way that not only attracts viewers but also develops a loyal audience.
At the height of the energy crisis in California during the administration of Gov. Gray Davis, local newsrooms struggled to cover stories about the effects of electricity deregulation day after day after day. Reporters, photojournalists and producers complained about using the same old B-roll for the countless stories about the energy crisis that were being produced, forgetting the human impact of the crisis.
Here is how potentially boring reports about public policy can be brought to life. We can tell compelling and visual stories about senior citizens on fixed incomes having to choose between buying their medicines and paying their $400 electricity bill. We can show low-income families having to choose between an extra bag of groceries and paying a bill that increased tenfold from one month to the next — and not because of their irresponsible use of power.
We all know how to tell these stories; it’s not a trademarked secret. Yet when faced with a choice in our daily editorial meetings, we often go the route of the easier and less relevant story that gives television newscasters a bad name.
The 60th anniversary of “Meet the Press” is an opportunity for all of us in the industry to reflect about our responsibility to the public and about our ideals that brought us into this wonderful field of journalism to begin with. The longest-running television show in United States broadcasting history should serve as an inspiration to not only deliver to the viewers the news we think they want, but also the stories that they deserve and need to see.
Pablo Espinoza is deputy director of the Speaker’s Office of Member Services for the California Assembly, and anchor, host and political reporter for “Voz y Voto,” Univision’s weekly public policy program for California.
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