No News Is Ad News

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
(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
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,
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
, 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

And there >>
Political ‘News’ Replaced By Political

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