Midwest local TV newscasts average 36 seconds of election coverage
Oct. 12, 2006
In the month following the traditional Labor Day kickoff of the 2006 election campaign season, television stations in nine Midwest markets devoted an average of 36 seconds to election coverage during the typical 30-minute local news broadcast, a new analysis conducted at the University of Wisconsin-Madison shows.
By contrast, the typical early and late-evening local news broadcasts contained more than 10 minutes of advertising, more than seven minutes of sports and weather, and almost two minutes, 30 seconds of crime stories.
The analysis traces broadcast news coverage in media markets in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan and Ohio, all of them witnessing highly competitive campaigns for state office this year. Public-opinion research consistently shows that voters rely on local television newscasts as their primary source of information about elections and politics.
The findings were reported today (Oct. 12) by the Midwest News Index (MNI), a new project of UW-Madison's NewsLab. The Joyce Foundation of Chicago is funding the analysis as part of an ongoing project examining democratic institutions and processes in the five-state region.
The UW-Madison NewsLab analysis captured up to one hour per night of the early and late-evening broadcasts on 36 NBC, CBS, ABC and FOX affiliates in nine Midwest markets between Sept. 7 and Oct. 6. The analysis covered the largest media market and state capital city in each state: Chicago, Springfield, Detroit, Lansing, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Cleveland, Columbus, Madison and Milwaukee.
Highlights of the initial report include:
- Of the more than 1,800 broadcasts analyzed by the UW-Madison NewsLab (900 hours of programming), 1,629 election related stories aired. These included stories that were primarily about campaigns and elections and stories that either tangentially included elections or that mentioned a candidate running for office in November.
- Just more than half of all broadcasts (56 percent) contained at least one story that was primarily about elections, and the average length of stories devoted primarily to elections was 68 seconds.
- In coverage of elections, strategy and horserace stories vastly outweighed substantive issue coverage by a margin of almost 3 to 1 (63 percent to 23 percent).
- Gubernatorial coverage consumed a third of the airtime (34 percent) devoted to election stories.
This initial report on pre-election coverage is the first in a series of analyses running through the summer of 2007 of how local news broadcasts cover politics and government. The duration of the study and its regional focus are unprecedented.
The UW-Madison NewsLab is directed by UW-Madison political science professor Ken Goldstein. The state-of-the-art facility has the infrastructure, technical skill and supervisory capability to capture, clip, code, analyze and archive any media in any market — domestic or international — in real time.
The NewsLab archives include data collected in the 2002 and 2004 national elections, and are the most comprehensive and systematic collection of campaign news coverage on local television stations ever gathered.
"Although it is the single greatest source of news information for most Americans, scholarly studies have consistently shown that citizens learn little from local news," Goldstein says. "The results from this study show why. There must be significant substantive content for learning to take place. This study, consistent with previous studies conducted at UW NewsLab, show that there is relatively little coverage of campaigns and elections on local news, and when coverage does occur, it tends to focus on horserace and strategy frames."
The Midwest News Index findings will be continually updated. The study will also produce a comprehensive, Web-based searchable archive available to journalists, scholars, civic organizations and others. A second report covering the final month of the campaign will be released in mid-November.
Lawrence Hansen, vice president of the Joyce Foundation, says he hoped the initial findings of the Midwest News Index would spur both station owners and their regulators to do a better job of fulfilling their public-interest obligations in the final weeks before the elections.
"The airwaves — like our national parks — are owned by the American people, not, as is often mistakenly assumed, by broadcasters. The results of this study show that most broadcasters are retreating from their obligation to serve the public interest, including their responsibility to inform citizens so they can participate in the political process," says Hansen.
"Meanwhile television station owners reap millions of dollars from paid political advertising — which in turn drives up the cost of running for office and makes candidates dependent on special interests and large donors willing to pick up the tab," Hansen says.
Following is a table illustrating a breakdown of the typical 30-minute local news broadcast in the nine markets covered by NewsLab's Midwest News Index. Times reflect averages based on total broadcasts analyzed.
Typical 30-minute broadcast breakdown (Sept. 7-Oct. 6):
- Advertising: 10 minutes, 7 seconds
- Sports and weather: 7 minutes, 1 second
- Crime: 2 minutes, 27 seconds
- Other: 2 minutes, 18 seconds
- Local interest: 2 minutes, 1 second
- Teasers, bumpers, intros: 1 minute, 46 seconds
- Non-campaign government news: 1 minute, 6 seconds
- Health: 1 minute, 4 seconds
- Business, economy: 1 minute, 2 seconds
- Election coverage: 36 seconds
- Foreign policy: 23 seconds
- Unintentional injury: 11 seconds