Monday, November 27, 2006

Should media cover politics better — or just leave it to ads?

A recent study in the Midwest is quite fascinating, but also disturbing: it showed people mainly got their political news and information prior to an election by television broadcast and the majority of that was paid advertising.

In other words, the coverage was probably quite biased, not very in-depth, and may have even been loose with the facts or context as often political opponents are tempted to slam each other and integrity and honesty are usually ignored.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison did the analysis as a project. Funded by Chicago’s Joyce Foundation, the UW-Madison’s NewsLab project is called the Midwest News Index and is doing an ongoing study on content and effect of local television news in several Midwest states: Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin.

While the study focused on the Midwest for a month prior to the mid-term elections, probably the public here in the West Coast can relate to some of the findings.

“Local newscasts in seven Midwest markets aired 4 minutes, 24 seconds of paid political ads during the typical 30-minute broadcast while dedicating an average of 1 minute, 43 seconds to election news coverage,” reported the university.

“The analysis also shows that most of the news coverage of elections on early and late-evening broadcasts was devoted to campaign strategy and polling, which outpaced reporting on policy issues by a margin of more than three to one (65 percent to 17 percent). These findings come amid studies consistently showing that voters look to local television newscasts as their primary source of information about elections.”

Some of the fascinating things the study found:

“From Sept. 7 to Oct. 6, local television stations devoted an average of 36 seconds to election coverage during the early- and late-evening newscasts captured in the study. The new findings show that 2,392 election stories aired in captured broadcasts on the stations in the seven markets while 8,995 political ads aired during the same period.”

“The average length of a single story devoted primarily to elections was roughly 76 seconds. By contrast, a similar national study conducted by NewsLab during the 2002 mid-term election found the average story ran 89 seconds.”

“Forty-one percent of the election stories were aired in the final week before Election Day.”

UW-Madison political science professor Ken Goldstein, who directed the project, said “Scholars, reformers, policy makers, and broadcasters may hold different opinions on the responsibilities of broadcasters and the relative effect of different sorts of campaign communications, but the data here are unambiguous — local television news provides less news on politics than many other topics and the coverage is overwhelmingly characterized by stories on strategy, horse race, and the game of politics. Any intelligent debate needs to begin from that starting point.”

While we might not have the number crunching and second-by-second analysis of the political information that aired in the Pacific Northwest and California, and some television stations deserve credit for doing more than others, in general the public probably faced similar circumstances here.

This leads to a few cautions and conclusions that can be sobering: first of all, are the media truly serving the public the best in preparing potential voters for making wise voting decisions? In the interest of selling expensive advertising space and filling airtime with other news such as what is happening in the entertainment world, has the media lost its direction in being more responsible in preparing people to vote?

Secondly, would voters even listen if the media tried to do a better job in explaining issues and covering political candidates more in-depth? Would the public care or just tune out if the media expanded their coverage time of politics?

Thirdly, if political ads are the main source of information influencing voters, should there be higher standards in truth, integrity and context in political advertising, although some people would argue that goes against Freedom of Speech within current legal lines.

And lastly, if there are so much political ads on television, and people are mostly influenced by these ads, does this mean that only those with deep financial pockets can afford to run for politics and make their case to be elected?

Will this restrict potentially great leaders from being involved in political campaigns or cause them to lose because they couldn’t match the millions of dollars spent by political opponents and special interest groups?

Goldstein made a good point about how this should be a starting point for an intelligent debate.

Hopefully, people will take up the challenge and hold that debate before the next election to help strengthen this country’s democracy rather than allow 30-second soundbytes help them choose who represents them at different levels of government.

Midwest News index
Joyce Foundation

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threecollie said...

What a powerful piece! I hope you don't mind if I link to it. I always had a feeling from talking to people who parrot such sources of information that an awful lot of folks don't dig too deeply for knowlege even when they hold strong opinions, but the numbers you quoted are just appalling!

Elaine Shein said...

I wonder if people even realize just how much political ads they're getting compared to actual news coverage of politics. People might be influenced by those ads without even realizing it.
I think another interesting statistic would have been how much is agricultural issues covered by the media or mentioned in the political ads during election time.
Here on the West Coast, sadly agriculture ends up being largely ignored by the broadcast media during election time.

threecollie said...

Same here, other than that our senators from Washington stump around the farm towns bragging on their accomplishments. We never hear from them the rest of the year.

Gary L. West said...

One thing that always fascinates me is the number of people who vote in elections. Do people not vote because the media doesn't do a better job covering the races, or does the media pay little attention to the meat of the races because the population doesn't really care?
If you just look at California numbers, some interesting things can be seen. In a state with 36.8 million people, there are 22.65 million eligible voters. Of those, just under 70 percent, 15.8 million people, are registered to vote. In the November election, the biggest race with perhaps the most statewide appeal and impact was the governor's race. There were 8.35 million ballots cast in that race, meaning little more than half of the state's registered voters voted in the governor's race.
If you break that down further, 4.67 million voters cast ballots for the eventual winner, incumbent Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who won easily. And even though there were 6 candidates in the race, only the the Democratic candidate got more than a smattering of the votes. That means less than 1 in 3 registered voters in California favored the candidate who will lead the state the next for years. That's less than 1 in 4 registered voters casting ballots for Schwarzenneger. And it means less than 1 in 7 California residents picked Arnold to run the state.
People who think we live in a democracy where there is majority rule are sadly mistaken. In the instance of California, based on the numbers from the most recent election, only about half of registered voters and a third of eligible voters bothered to show up to pick their governor.
Democracy is an illusion. It's a lie we tell ourselves.
How's that for a sound bite?

Elaine Shein said...

'Twas more than 30 seconds on the soundbyte.
But you made great points with some tough stats to ignore.

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