Covering Campaign 2000

Bay Area and State Races Unimportant on Local TV News

We found:
·        Even if you counted only the front and local news page of the newspapers and compared that with the entire newscasts, there was a gulf between how seriously the campaign was taken by the papers compared to the broadcasters. The separation was particularly wide in reporting about state and local issues--which you might expect to be the primary focus of Bay Area stations, which have only local reporters.

Counting both national and state/local campaign coverage, The Contra Costa Times devoted the most space on its front page and local news display page--53 percent. The Mercury allocated 35 percent of that high-readership space to the campaign. The Chronicle was right behind at 31 percent. The four television stations relied more on network stories than their own reporting and thus did a better job on the presidential race than local contests. Channel 2 led with 19 percent of its news time devoted to the campaign, followed by Channel 7 with 17 percent, Channel 4 with 15 percent and Channel 5 with 11 percent.

 

Channels 4 (NBC), 5 (CBS) and 7 (ABC) could all rely on national network newscasts carried on the same evening to cover the presidential race. Their unique contribution was covering California and Bay Area contests. On the two nights of our sample (Tuesday, October 31 and Thursday, Nov. 2) Channel 4 devoted 9 percent of its news time --less than 7.5 minutes in two hour-long newscasts. Channel 2 devoted only 4 percent of its news to state and local campaigns. Channel 7, just 3 percent. And Channel 5, zip.

 

Channel 7 spent twice as much time on a story about “X-ray video cameras” that “can see through your clothes” as on state or local politics. In a breathless report than ran nearly 5 minutes, “7 on your side” reporter Michael Finney titillated viewers, asking “Can we see through this woman’s sweater, through this guy’s slacks?” “Boy, it’s stunning stuff,” enthused anchor Dan Ashley.

 

 Although pitched as a privacy story, Finney never got around to saying who, if anyone, uses such cameras. And his demonstration of the camera--which operates with infrared light, not X-rays--showed little more than standard cameras. In fairness, Grade the News did not stay tuned for “video voyeurs,” the 11 p.m. segment of the continuing “investigation,” despite Finney’s promise that, “Everyone you see here (a group of young adults on a pier) will be exposed.” KGO’s single local/state political story, on growth control measures, was solidly reported, however.

 

While KGO scored an exclusive on “X-ray cameras”, the Co Co Times spent an amazing 42 percent of its display space on informing voters about state and local contests. The Mercury allocated 20 percent, and the Chronicle 16 percent.

·        On the positive side, both newspapers and broadcasters fully covered George W. Bush’s 1976 DUI conviction. (One concern: Channel 7 attempted to turn the incident into a reason to visit its website (the number of “hits” set ad rates). Twice on the same newscast, viewers were urged to register a “vote” on the website about whether the drinking incident mattered. “We’ll tell you the results tomorrow,” the anchors promised, as if such a self-selected sample was newsworthy.) And all seven gave Bush a sound bite or quote from his visit to San Jose’s CityTeam Ministries and Al Gore was quoted in Los Angeles or Chicago.

 

·         Also on the positive side, all seven major local news media were careful to present both or all sides of the races they covered. We didn’t look for exact parity of space or time; that would be too confining a definition of fairness. But if one side was quoted directly, others were offered equal opportunity. 

 

Active vs. passive reporting

 

Grade the News also evaluated the active or passive nature of political coverage, and measured its depth and breadth.

 

Again the divide between newspapers and newscasts appeared: 73 percent of the Chronicle articles were enterprise stories--in which reporters actively engage political issues rather than following staged events such as campaign stops and rallies. (Enterprise reporting is important because it allows reporters to ask the public’s questions, rather than letting politicians and their handlers project an image and control information, as Bush and Gore both did at their public appearances during the final week.) At the Mercury, 54 percent of the stories were enterprise; at the Times, 50 percent, including the only investigative article we found. The Times discovered that neither candidate in a local race had been completely truthful about the degrees they earned from universities.

 

Some enterprise stories were extraordinarily helpful. Mercury reporters Michelle Guido and Gary Richards went through competing claims in political advertisements about Measure A--principally funding a BART extension through San Jose--separating wheat from chaff. Paul Rogers tersely analyzed Prop 37, a complex initiative about environmental business fees that polls showed few understood. On the other hand, Channel 2’s “barber poll,”--two Pacific Grove barbers discussing the haircuts favored by Gore and Bush supporters--was cute, but we trust reporter Robert Handa was kidding when he said, “a barber’s poll is as good as any.”

 

Among broadcasters, Channel 4 led with 35 percent enterprise reporting; Channels 7 and 2 both scored 18 percent. Channel 5’s reporting was entirely passive.

 

Depth and breadth

 

As for depth, the Times quoted independent expert sources to help make sense of competing claims or provide a neutral overview in 36 percent of its political reports; and the Mercury in 29 percent. Chronicle reporters seldom called on experts in its political reporting, quoting one only in one story of ten. Each of the television stations quoted an independent expert in only one political story.

 

Breadth was measured by the average number of named sources--either persons or documents--in political stories. To compensate for the fact that newspapers have more space than newscasts have time, we capped the count per story at 5 specified sources, and up to three additional independent expert sources. Thus no matter how long the story, a maximum of eight sources is possible.

 

Here Channel 2 led all Bay Area news media with 5.2 sources per story. The Oakland station far outstripped other broadcasters. Channel 4 was the closest competitor with 2.4 sources. Channel 5 averaged two sources and Channel 7, 1.7 sources. The Mercury led newspapers with 4.6 sources followed by the Times with 4.1 and the Chronicle with 2.9. The Chronicle’s scores were depressed by short stories by columnists Phillip Matier and Andrew Ross, who rarely source their reporting.

Each of the stations and newspapers rated were sent a pre-posting draft of this analysis. None chose to comment.

 

A recommendation

 

The analysis presented here under-represents the informational advantage of reading a newspaper before an election. While entire newscasts were sampled, only two pages of the newspapers were included. The papers’ inside pages and editorial pages contained many more stories not counted in this analysis. If the half--or quarter-hearted--effort to cover state and local campaigns exhibited by broadcasters in this sample even approximately typifies their reporting strategies, Grade the News strongly recommends Bay Area citizens buy or subscribe to a newspaper in the month prior to elections. 

--John McManus

 

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