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Debates eclipse local, state races

Campaign coverage in the Bay Area shifts to presidential contest; local and California issues still under-covered

KNTV Channel 11's Allen Denton headlines in-depth local political reporting in an interview with Assembly District Director Gloria Ritchie about Fremont's Measure V. Among broadcasters, KNTV is the early leader in coverage of state and local races.

Bay Area daily news coverage of the elections so far has been more intense than it was during the last election season in February but also overwhelmingly focused on the presidential race, an analysis of several days' worth of newspapers and TV newscasts shows.

For all the attention heaped on the claims and counterclaims made in the nationally televised debates, most local and statewide races and ballot measures remain unexplained to the voters.

Grade the News is tracking local election coverage on a rolling basis leading up to the Nov. 2 balloting. We're watching and reading the eight most popular print and broadcast outlets every day during the four weeks before the election. We started by analyzing and measuring the front, local front and editorial pages of newspapers and all of the premier evening newscasts, from the Oct. 5 to Oct. 8 news cycles.

We'll write frequent updates and issue a final scorecard after the election. We also encourage you to grade the local news yourself by downloading our 2004 election coverage scorecard.

KTVU Channel 2 and KRON Channel 4 are producing the most campaign coverage amont local broadcasters: 13 minutes 15 seconds per hour for KTVU, and 12:10 for KRON.

The three network-affiliated English-language TV stations -- KPIX Channel 5, KGO Channel 7 and KNTV Channel 11 -- have had less political coverage overall. KNTV clocked in at 9:34 per hour; KGO at 6:21; and KPIX at 5:56. (KPIX's time was doubled because its premier newscast is only half an hour.)

The way the media, ourselves included, has covered this race -- with tiny sound bites, really not a lot of in-depth information -- these debates are the first real chance we've had to see these people in an unproduced way.

-- KRON Channel 4 anchor Wendy Tokuda

KNTV in San Jose, which is coming in a close third in overall campaign coverage, has produced some innovative TV, with an informative feature called "Political Postcards" that focuses on local contests. One was broadcast from the East Bay city of Fremont, from which anchor Allen Denton broadcast live last Thursday. He spent several minutes going in depth and interviewing a city official about a proposed utility tax, Measure V. Of all news outlets, KNTV so far has been the most focused on original coverage of local and state campaigns.

While we measured more square inches of political coverage in the San Francisco Chronicle than in the San Jose Mercury News, by about 28% percent, a different method might have altered that balance (we count the space allocated to all stories beginning on the front and local front pages, including the columns that "jump" inside the paper, but not "sidebars" -- related stories inside adjacent to the jump). Due to delivery delays, the Contra Costa Times was unavailable. It will be analyzed more thoroughly in the coming days.

The polarization of national politics this year has attracted unprecedented numbers of viewers to the first three debates. That swell of audience interest has freed news directors who follow market demand to devote more time to politics at the national level with less risk of boring -- and losing -- viewers.

Meanwhile, state and local contests have taken a backseat. The only exceptions have been the two California gambling propositions, 68 and 70. They got a lot of attention after celebrity Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger stumped against both of them in the Bay Area. Less clear in much of the reporting is what the measures would actually mean if enacted and who would win or lose.

Four television stations and the Chronicle overwhelmingly emphasized the race for the White House. But KNTV Channel 11, the NBC affiliate let the network take the lead in the national presidential race and focused 53% of its campaign coverage on state and Bay Area contests. The Mercury News, also bucked the trend, allocating 45% of its coverage toward state and local races, including a number of editorial endorsements.

News of the presidential race is available from network newscasts and many other news media. So Grade the News puts a premium on reportage of local and regional contests, for which citizens must depend on Bay Area media alone.

That local orientation was scarce at KTVU with only 30% of its campaign coverage focusing on state and local contests. KPIX directed 28% of its political reporting to local races; the Chronicle 25%; KGO 17%; and KRON 12%.


Fact checking -- What's promising in the national coverage is that some papers and stations have produced regular "fact-check" segments -- perhaps in response to criticism that they were merely taking dictation, thus repeating campaign distortions. Mark Matthews at KGO Channel 7 and Phil Matier at KRON Channel 4 deserve special recognition for this.

Of course, "fact checks" can lead to voter cynicism if all misstatements by both candidates are treated with equal weight out of a perceived need for "balanced" reporting. Mr. Matier summarized the vice-presidential debate this way: "Bottom line is that both candidates stretched the truth, played with the numbers a few times. But you know, that seems to be the name of the game in this campaign." By comparison, the Washington Post's fact check of the same debate turned up many more distortions emanating from Dick Cheney's lips than from John Edwards'.

Instant polls -- Still, fact checks are far more useful to undecided voters than the so-called "instant polls" that some TV stations like to report without context, and without warnings about the sketchy survey methods they employ. Who "won" the vice-presidential debate? ABC News said Cheney by 43% to 35%. CBS said Edwards by 41% to 28%. The differences far exceeded the margins of sampling error. Thus one or both were flat wrong. If such polls are so demonstrably unreliable, are they news at all?

Unchallenged ads -- Political ads averaged 2 minutes 28 seconds a night during the period analyzed. Some of the ads looked particularly deceptive, but little effort was seen to deconstruct the messages they contained.

No news outlet so far has addressed -- in what we've seen -- mildly deceptive advertising coming from Steve Poizner's campaign for state Assembly. A Republican running a self- and well-financed campaign in an overwhelmingly Democratic district, Mr. Poizner is identifying himself as closely as possible with Democratic endorsers -- without ever mentioning in the ad that he belongs to the other party.

Several stations did cover a flap over a strongly worded letter sent out by Democratic state Assembly candidate Ira Ruskin regarding Poizner, his challenger, after San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom briefly denied having written it.

Sound bites -- The debates provided voters with an opportunity to hear the candidates unfiltered. At least one television journalist realized that the media have fallen short in their attempts to summarize and analyze the policy claims made by the candidates.

KRON's Wendy Tokuda candidly summed up the typical style of coverage of the presidential horserace after seeing the second presidential debate last Friday: "The way the media, ourselves included, has covered this race -- with tiny sound bites, really not a lot of in-depth information -- these debates are the first real chance we've had to see these people in an unproduced way."

Such frankness signals the possibility of a more issue-oriented approach as the campaigns come down to the final weeks. We'll be watching.

Local issues -- KTVU Channel 2's health and science editor, John Fowler, deserves recognition for a story last Thursday on Measure B in Marin County, which would ban the growing of genetically modified organisms. He captured both the pro and con of the argument, and consulted an independent expert source to weigh in on the scientific controversy.

Joan Ryan of the Chronicle took an in-depth look in a column last Wednesday at the structure of the local electoral system in a profile of a Republican trying to run for state Senate in Marin. "Marin and Sonoma are basically disenfranchized," she quotes a source as saying. "The district has been gerrymandered so that (someone from) San Francisco always wins. Basically San Francisco gets two state senators and Marin gets none."

What do you think? Discuss it in The Coffeehouse.


A project of the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at San Jose State University, Grade the News is affiliated with the Graduate Program in Journalism at Stanford University and KTEH, public television in Silicon Valley.

Monitoring the Bay Area's most popular news media:

Contra Costa Times

Knight Ridder

San Francisco Chronicle


San Jose Mercury News

Knight Ridder

KTVU, Oakland (FOX)

KTVU, Oakland (FOX)

KRON, San Francisco

KRON, San Francisco

KPIX, San Francisco (CBS)

KPIX, San Francisco (CBS)

KGO, San Francisco (ABC)

KGO, San Francisco (ABC)

KNTV, San Jose (NBC)

KNTV, San Jose (NBC)


Bay Area media advocates:

Media Alliance
Center for the Integration and Improvement of Journalism at SFSU
Maynard Institute
Youth Media Council
Project Censored
New California Media
Society of Professional Journalists, Northern California chapter
National Writers Union Bay Area chapter

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