TV coverage of campaigns increased; ads still dominated

LANSING – Local news coverage of state election campaigns increased significantly in the month before Election Day. But paid political advertising occupied more than 2.5 times as much of a typical 30-minute local newscast in Great Lakes states during that period.

In the Detroit market, on average there was one minute and 23 seconds of election coverage per 30-minute newscast between October 7th and Election Day. That is up from an average of 22 seconds per 30-minute newscast the previous month, between September 7th and October 6th.

For the Lansing market, there was an average of one minute and 46 seconds of election coverage per 30-minutes of local news in the month before Election Day, up from 27 seconds the previous month.

Advertising was more than 10 minutes of the average newscast in Detroit and Lansing, and in Detroit, four minutes and 18 seconds of that total was political advertising. Corresponding political ad data are not available for the Lansing market.

The University of Wisconsin – Madison NewsLab released those data today as part of its Midwest News Index project. The NewsLab recorded and analyzed the top-rated early-evening news broadcast and late-evening newscast for each network affiliate in Chicago, Cleveland, Columbus, Detroit, Lansing, Madison, Milwaukee, Minneapolis-St. Paul and Springfield.

The Chicago-based Joyce Foundation is funding the news analysis as part of an ongoing effort to examine 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.

“It is positive that local newscasts increased their campaign coverage the closer we got to Election Day,” said John Chamberlin, chairman of Common Cause in Michigan. “But when you consider how many people rely on local television news as a main information source, these are disappointing findings. Broadcasters are supposed to serve the public interest in exchange for having virtually free use of a public asset – the broadcast spectrum. We have a right to expect more from local newscasts.”

“Beyond the volume of campaign coverage, we should be concerned about the nature of the coverage,” said Rich Robinson of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. “There were three times as many stories about the ‘horserace’ – polling, fundraising, and strategy – as there were about issues.”

“The gubernatorial campaigns alone bought more than $50 million worth of air-time and the broadcasters should use part of that revenue stream for more ambitious, issue-focused coverage,” Robinson said.

“This study gets to the heart of an issue that has a tremendous impact on our democracy,” said Anne Magoun, president of the League of Women Voters of Michigan. “Voters need information to make wise choices, and they’re getting way more ads than news when they tune into local newscasts. That imbalance needs to be addressed with more and better reporting.”

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Press Release 2006 News