30 seconds of news, $30 million in ads

LANSING – Research conducted by the University of Wisconsin NewsLab shows that television broadcasters in Detroit and Lansing devoted an average of less than 30 seconds to Michigan’s campaigns and elections per 30-minute news broadcast during the first month of traditional campaign season, between September 7th and October 6th.

In contrast, the typical early- or late-evening newscast had more than ten minutes of advertising, more than seven minutes of sports and weather, and more than two minutes of crime stories.

Those findings are part of a region-wide study called the Midwest News Index that was released today by the UW-Madison NewsLab. The Chicago-based Joyce Foundation is funding the news analysis as part of an ongoing project examining democratic institutions and processes in Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota. Common Cause in Michigan, the League of Women Voters of Michigan and the Michigan Campaign Finance Network are state partners for the project.

The NewsLab recorded and analyzed the top-rated early-evening news broadcast and the late-evening newscast for each network affiliate in Chicago, Columbus, Cleveland, Detroit, Lansing, Madison, Milwaukee, Minneapolis-St. Paul and Springfield.

“Broadcasters have an obligation to serve the public interest because they’re using a public asset, the broadcast spectrum,” said John Chamberlin, chairman of Common Cause in Michigan. “This study shows serious shortcomings in the information citizens are getting from a vitally important medium, and that makes it harder to be an informed participant in the political process.”

The NewsLab data stand in disturbing contrast to political advertising records collected by the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, according to Rich Robinson, MCFN’s executive director.

“Michigan television broadcasters are going to take in more than $30 million in political advertising revenue just from the gubernatorial campaign,” Robinson said. “They should be taking part of that revenue stream and investing it in substantive coverage of the crucial issues that we’re facing as a state.”

The Midwest News Index shows that 76 percent of the stories related to campaigns focused on campaign strategy and “horserace” statistics, such as polling and fundraising. Only ten percent of the Detroit stories focused on issues. In Lansing, 54 percent of the stories were strategy and horserace, while 41 percent were issues-centered, a high for the region.

Anne Magoun, president of the League of Women Voters of Michigan, said, “Political advertising is overwhelming campaign news analysis, but it doesn’t have to be this way. For the sake of our democracy, the broadcasters need to work harder to provide meaningful campaign coverage and the candidates need to be more transparent and more accessible to journalists and the citizens. If we don’t have informed citizens, we don’t really have a democracy.”

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Press Release 2006 News