No News Is Ad News

Paid political ads have become the dominant source of election information on local news shows

| November 30, 2006

Voters who tuned into their local news broadcasts in hopes of preparing for a trip to the ballot box this year may have missed most of the election 'information' if they flipped during the commercials. A new study conducted by the University of Wisconsin's NewsLab (pdf file), as part of a broader survey of local news content called the Midwest News Index (MNI), analyzed political coverage versus political advertisements on news broadcasts in seven markets in five Midwestern states (the capital and largest city in each) during the month preceding the elections. The results show that during a standard 30-minute local newscast -- the leading source of news for most Americans -- paid political ads took up an average of 4 minutes and 24 seconds while actual news coverage occupied an average of 1 minute and 43 seconds. And when stations were covering the election, their stories turned out to be less about the issues and more about the ins-and-outs of campaigns: 65 percent of election news coverage was devoted to campaign strategy, compared with 17 percent focusing on policy issues.

Political ads now outnumber election news stories nearly 4 to 1, and those stories aren't as meaty as they used to be. The study found that news items were significantly shorter this season than those during the last midterm election. In a piece for the Badger Herald, the University of Wisconsin's campus paper, Courtney Johnson examines how news coverage has evolved to spend more time on teasers and intros than election stories' actual content. '[W]e've reached the point where TV stations are acting [like] anything that gets aired about election campaigns is something they had to get paid to air,' laments Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a political watchdog group. 'I fail to see how it can possibly be described as serving the public interest, leaving viewers with nothing but paid political messages to go on.'

That's precisely the problem, writes John Nichols in his blog, the Online Beat, published by the Nation. Back when President Franklin D. Roosevelt enacted the federal Communications Act, 'all who used the people's airwaves would be required to do so in the public interest.' As time went on, public interest has been elbowed out by corporate interests in entertainment and commercialization. 'The duty to inform the public about the political processes of the Republic, which once was considered the essential responsibility of the recipient of a broadcast license, has been abandoned,' Nichols argues.

With increasingly nasty campaign ads now commonplace on the airwaves, little is being done to help viewers see through the muck to the issues at hand. Larry Hansen, vice president of the Joyce Foundation, which bankrolls MNI, bemoans local news efforts, alleging in the group's press release on the study, that they've 'failed in their responsibility to provide an adequate amount of substantive election coverage, which might have helped counterbalance the waves of negative ads.' The outlook doesn't have to be dire, though, the Online Beat's Nichols argues. He calls on citizen groups to challenge the broadcast license renewal of local stations, and for legislators to require broadcasters to offer free airtime to candidates. Otherwise, as Hansen puts it, 'well funded candidates and local broadcasters win while voters, most candidates, and democracy lose.'

Go there >> Midwest Local TV Newscasts Devote 2.5 Times As Much Air Time To Political Ads As Election Coverage, Study Finds

Go there, too >> UW Study Raises Concern Over TV News

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