Evaluating print and broadcast news in the San Francisco Bay Area from A to F.
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Campaign watch

Channel 11, Mercury News lead in Bay Area coverage

NBC station demonstrating commitment to local, state political news; San Jose paper leads among newspapers

Is this any way to cover an election? KRON Channel 4's Phil Matier compares the presidential race to a sport. But does that empower voters, or turn citizens into spectators?

As the fall campaign season intensifies, some Bay Area news organizations have clearly gone out of their way to present readers and viewers an expanded view of California candidates and ballot questions, an ongoing Grade the News survey of the eight most popular local news outlets shows.

Though all English-language commercial TV stations in the region are devoting far more attention to the run-up to the Nov. 2 presidential election than they did to the March 2 primaries, only a few are focusing their energies on local and state races. KNTV Channel 11 in San Jose and the San Jose Mercury News are giving the most cover-page and prime-time coverage to those campaigns. (See charts, below.)

From the perspective of socially responsible journalism, the news media have a fundamental obligation to help citizens cast informed votes. This duty is more acute for state and local races because they receive far less attention from reliable news sources than the presidential duel. Our report covers the premiere evening newscasts from Oct. 5 to the morning newspapers on Oct. 16.

"I've pretty much left the presidential race to the networks," KNTV News Director Jim Sanders said at a Stanford University Center on Ethics forum on political coverage at Palo Alto City Hall Wednesday. "My focus is on the Bay Area."

Creativity: The San Jose Mercury News details 13 local education measures in a full page of endorsements, saying the common thread is the replacement of funds missing from public schools across the state.

That station is nearing the end of a series of 15 innovative hyper-local features called "Political Postcards," in which the station focuses on city council races and ballot measures all around the Bay Area. The effort has helped KNTV take the lead among five TV stations in total time devoted to politics -- an average of 13 minutes per hour of news, more than twice the commitment to politics of the trailing station, KPIX Channel 5.

In newspapers, the San Francisco Chronicle has provided the highest volume of political coverage overall on front, local-front and editorial pages -- where we focus our analysis. However, the Mercury News has had the most California and Bay Area campaign news. The Mercury News' editorial page has done a particularly thorough job laying out dozens of complex local ballot measures through its endorsements, sometimes taking up the entire page.

Last March, Grade the News tallied coverage from two of the last three weeks before the election, and found that the three TV stations based in San Francisco -- KRON Channel 4, KPIX Channel 5 and KGO Channel 7 -- each gave one minute or less per night to issue-centered coverage of any campaign -- local, state or national. KNTV had 2 minutes 30 seconds per day, while KTVU Channel 2 led the pack with 3 minutes.

We count as issue stories all that are predominantly about candidate positions, performance, character, pros and cons of ballot initiatives, endorsements, fact-checks of speeches and political ads, and the logistics of voting -- voting machine reliability, voter registration, etc. The only campaign stories that don't count as issues are strategy stories about who's ahead -- what critics call "horse-race" journalism.

What would be an appropriate amount of political coverage? Obviously, more is better. But a coalition of 30 public-interest groups, as diverse as Common Cause and the Alliance for Better Campaigns to the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, has asked local television newsrooms to air two hours per week of issue-oriented discourse between 5 p.m. and 11:35 p.m. from mid-September to Election Day.

To meet that standard stations would have to air about 17 minutes of issue coverage each evening. If one counts the three nationally televised presidential and one vice-presidential debates, then all of our stations qualify during the period of this study.

But if the 17 minutes per night standard is applied to what the stations produce in their own newscasts and other campaign reporting, then only KNTV Channel 11 would be a sure bet to meet it across all of its evening newscasts. Generally the premiere evening newscasts, which we rate, carry the greatest proportion of political and other serious news. So extrapolating minutes from those shows to earlier and later newscasts may not yield an accurate total.

For more on the good, the bad and the so-so in Bay Area campaign coverage, see "trendspotting," below.

Average space or time devoted to campaign coverage

News organization
Total campaign coverage
per day/hour of news
Issue-centered
campaign coverage per day/hour of news
San Francisco Chronicle
363 sq. in.
275 sq. in.
KTVU (Channel 2)
11:44 min:sec
8:45 min:sec
San Jose Mercury News
300 sq. in.
285 sq. in.
KRON (Channel 4)
9:56 min:sec
6:06 min:sec
KPIX (Channel 5)
5:56 min:sec
4:47 min:sec
Contra Costa Times
196 sq. in.
114 sq. in.
KGO (Channel 7)
9:01 min:sec
8:26 min:sec
KNTV (Channel 11)
13:01 min:sec
11:56 min:sec
For reference, a newspaper page has about 240 square inches. A television newscast has about 20 minutes of news time per half-hour (after subtracting commercials and routine sports and weather reports.) All weekday newscasts were hour-long but KPIX's. Channel 5 airs only half-hour shows adjacent to prime time. Most weekend newscasts are 30 minutes long.
For television we recorded the premiere evening newscast as chosen by the station. For newspapers we analyzed all political stories related to the coming election on the front page, the local section front and the editorial page. We noticed a number of political stories on inside pages of all three newspapers. These were not included because inside pages are less read than cover fronts; We wanted a measure of political coverage made salient to the reader. Because newscasts are so brief we considered all of their stories salient -- the equivalent of cover pages stories in print.

Proportion of all campaign coverage devoted to each contest

News organization

President

Cong-
ress

State
legis.

Local
races

All State Props

Local
ballot
measures
San Francisco Chronicle
72%
2%
6%
8%
9%
4%
KTVU (Channel 2)
68
1
<1
2
20
9
San Jose Mercury News
51
0
10
14
10
15
KRON (Channel 4)
87
0
0
0
11
2
KPIX (Channel 5)
90
0
0
0
10
0
Contra Costa Times
52
0
12
11
15
10
KGO (Channel 7)
63
0
0
0
29
8
KNTV (Channel 11)
51
0
13
2
19
16
Totals may not equal 100% due to rounding.

TRENDSPOTTING:

Sound bites -- KTVU's political editor, Randy Shandobil, continues to take the prize for the most thorough, serious and accurate coverage of the presidential race on Bay Area television. On Oct. 13, after the third presidential debate, the 10 p.m. newscast opened with Mr. Shandobil's 5-minute-31-second story that let the candidates do most of the talking. And when they were talking (in sound bites that lasted up to 30 seconds each), they were hitting the issues -- the deficit, healthcare, the management of the war in Iraq. In contrast, KGO's 2-minute-27-second piece hit all the debate's moments of "heat" -- the most conflictual name-calling moments, including post-debate spin from the candidates' political handlers -- but little of the light. It provided a sharp contrast between news created merely to turn heads and news created to fill them.

Nobody prioritizes politics all the time -- Some days, usually on the weekends, all the TV stations default to putting campaign coverage on the back burner. On Oct. 10, four stations led the premiere evening broadcast with a non-fatal shark attack in Marin, and the fifth station aired that episode second (after a snippet about the shooting of an 8-year-old girl). The fish bite was hardly the most important thing to happen that day, but the stations seemed to agree that it was more pressing news than what was happening in the campaign for president, 16 statewide ballot propositions and hundreds of local races and ballot measures.

That night, a 26-second story on KPIX summarized John Kerry's appearance at a black church in Miami this way: "Kerry talked about issues that concern African-Americans." Hardly enough to inform a voter about the Democrat's stance on any aspect of race relations.

Sourcing -- We've seen a wide range of attention to context, as measured by the number and quality of sources interviewed. KTVU's Renee Kemp aired a particularly thorough presidential campaign wrap-up story on Oct. 14, adding local voices to the Bush-Kerry back and forth: the head San Francisco Republican, a black Republican in Oakland, a Democrat headed to Oregon to get out the vote and a political science professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

One 5-minute-32-second story on KNTV on Oct. 12 featured an interview with a wheelchair-bound Vallejo teen who, the reporter suggested, might benefit from state-funded stem-cell research promised in Proposition 71. But the story did not include the voices of any independent medical experts who might say whether his injuries might be cured with such a hypothetical therapy.

Ad watch -- In contrast, one of the best reports on Proposition 71 came from KGO Channel 7's Nanette Miranda, who examined the TV commercials for and against the $3 billion stem-cell bond measure. The pro side feature compelling testimony from Parkinson's sufferer Michael J. Fox. An ad by a nursing group was a lot less slick. "For now," she said, "you won't see that nurses' ad, because 71 opponents have a war chest of less than $200,000, while supporters have $20 million. The nurses plan to ask TV stations for equal time." (Good luck!)

Specials -- Several news outlets have produced election specials that deserve recognition. In particular, KRON Channel 4 produced an edition of "4 the Record" on Oct. 10 that delved into national and state politics. The half-hour roundtable program, however, hosted by the Chronicle's and KRON's Phil Matier, was pretty heavy on the witty repartee with former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, to the detriment of other perspectives.

Political Postcards -- KNTV's Allen Denton co-anchors the evening newscast live from one of 15 sites around the Bay Area, focusing in on local issues and races. One recent broadcast looked at a signature drive to recall the mayor of Hayward. Another informative report by Daniel Garza looked at the tight race in state Senate District 14 south of San Jose between a Republican and a Democrat with very similar positions on many issues.

Unfairness -- KRON Channel 4 ran a short story on Oct. 14, which it called "Bite of the night." It quoted former President George H.W. Bush saying that filmmaker Michael Moore was a "total ass slimeball." No response from Mr. Moore. Does that sound evenhanded to you?

Not all polls created equal -- Bay Area polls run the gamut -- from good to sloppy. Good: KTVU Channel 2's Field Poll, which it releases in dribs and drabs every day. Sloppy: KGO's ABC7 Listens Poll, which is not a scientific survey based on probability sampling. It's an on-line survey based on a voluntary, not random, sample. In the view of most traditional pollsters, that makes the results unlikely to accurately represent the views of the Bay Area's population. See: When a poll isn't really a poll, Nov. 11, 2003.

HORSE RACE VS. ISSUES EXPLAINED

Here's an example of what we mean by horse-race and by issue reporting. These statements come from a story on KNTV Channel 11, on Oct. 15. Many stories contain elements of horserace and issue reporting. We categorize them based on which type dominates in the story:

HORSE RACE: "Both presidential candidates hit critical battleground states today. ..."

ISSUES: "... Kerry in Wisconsin avoided the controversy over the Mary Cheney comment. Instead he focused on a familiar topic -- the economy. He told a rally in Milwaukee the Bush administration policies favor the rich, and promised to help middle-class families. ..."

HORSE RACE: "... Meanwhile, Sen. Hillary Clinton campaigned in the Bay Area today on Sen. Kerry's behalf. She received a standing ovation at a fund-raiser in San Francisco. ..."

ISSUES: "... Sen. Clinton told the audience that this election will impact everything from the Supreme Court balance to the environment. ..."

HORSE RACE: "... President Bush is concentrating on the upper Midwest. He stopped in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa today. The Democrats won all three states in 2000, and they are still up for grabs in this year's race. ..."

ISSUES: "Today the president emphasized the link between jobs and education. It's a theme he tried to hammer during Wednesday's debate."

Update: The first version of this story referenced a failure to name sources on the part of KGO Channel 7 for several stories on Oct. 12's newscast. We reviewed the stories on a tape of the newscast provided by the station which did not include the the logos across the bottom of the screen with the sources' names. News Director Kevin Keeshan assures us that the over-the-air version did contain source identification. 

What do you think? Discuss it in The Coffeehouse.

WEEKLY UPDATES

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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

Hearst

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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