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November 22, 2006
How Could You Tell?

A new study by the University of Wisconsin reports that Midwestern voters got more exposure to political advertisements than election coverage in the broadcast media. Local and regional news services turned themselves into tip sheets rather than reporting on the policy issues at stake in the election:

A study by the University of Wisconsin-Madison's NewsLab found that in the month before the Nov. 7 elections, television stations in seven Midwest markets aired an average of 4 minutes and 24 seconds of political ads and 1 minute and 43 seconds of election news during a typical 30-minute broadcast.

The study analyzed early and late evening newscasts on 28 stations in five states. The markets were Chicago, Detroit, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Cleveland, Columbus, Ohio, and Wisconsin's Madison and Milwaukee. Most regions featured competitive gubernatorial, Senate or House races that resulted in significant spending on political advertising.

Ken Goldstein, a political scientist who directed the study, said the coverage of politics and elections increased in the past month and reached its peak in the week before the election. But Goldstein said the news stories tended to focus on the horse race aspect of politics rather than on the views and policies of the candidates.

"There was an overwhelming focus on strategy and polling as opposed to a focus on the issues," he said.

The Wisconsin study sparked outrage from media outlets. They claimed that researchers skewed the study by not including televised debates and news programs airing in the mornings, noon, and weekends. This, however, is a silly and self-defeating argument. Having watched those kinds of local broadcasts for many years, I can tell you that even the broadcasters themselves don't take the news seriously for these shows. Instead, they have turned the morning shows into inane gabfests, where news gets a whole two minutes at the top and bottom of each hour, with the balance of the show dedicated to celebrity gossip, diet tips, and local human-interest stories. Lunch-hour news programs tend to cover the headlines and skip any kind of in-depth analysis, and weekend shows get so little viewership that they could run naked circus performers and it would probably escape the FCC.

Everyone understands that weekday prime-time broadcasts attract the most viewers by far, and the most diverse. Their advertising rates demonstrate that quite clearly. Are these broadcasters charging more for time in mornings, noontime, and weekends? Hardly. If they want to pursue serious news coverage for the majority of their viewers, they would do so during their evening news programs -- and clearly they did not.

Even when they did cover the races, what did they cover? The study shows that news broadcasts primarily covered the ads running on their own stations. For some purposes, this was a necessary evil -- especially in the Patty Wetterling campaign, which unleashed a series of misleading advertising -- but if the study is correct, it shows a rather incestuous relationship between the news media and their advertisers. It also demonstrates a completely facile strategy for informing viewers of the issues at stake in the election. After all, their viewers already saw the ads; they didn't need them repeated ad nauseam.

It's an indication of how badly local and regional news media have abdicated their responsibility to provide real information on real issues. Hard news has long since gone out of style in the sub-national level, and this confirms that it won't be making a comeback any time soon.

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at November 22, 2006 10:56 AM

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