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

Local TV campaign coverage falls following debates; newspapers surge

Channel 11 continues dominance on state and local issues nearly a week before election; Mercury News and Contra Costa Times produce ample voter guides

 

On the issues: KGO Channel 7's Dan Ashley leads a group of self-proclaimed undecided voters through a roundtable discussion of the presidential race on Oct. 13. Such coverage, linking national and local concerns, was rare.

With little more than a week remaining before Election Day, most Bay Area TV stations actually reduced their campaign coverage from levels earlier in October, a Grade the News incremental analysis of daily news reporting shows.

However, newspapers, particularly the Contra Costa Times and San Jose Mercury News, surged.

With the presidential and vice presidential debates over, viewers might have expected an intensifying interest in California and local contests, particularly with ballots crowded with state and local propositions. But the coverage emphasis remained on the proven ratings winner -- the tight presidential contest.

Meanwhile, all three newspapers increased their political coverage, especially their attention to local and issue-oriented reporting (as opposed to the strategy or "horse race").

In particular, the Times and the Mercury News performed a valuable service in publishing voter-education guides just prior to Election Day. This year the San Francisco Chronicle did not produce a voter guide, choosing instead to beef up local coverage in parts of the paper that the study did not measure, such as inside the B section, and the Insight and Friday sections. Jim Brewer, the paper's political editor, said so many people vote early by absentee ballot that it no longer makes sense to produce a guide on one day. Still, issue-oriented local reporting also increased in that paper from the week before.

In this analysis we examined more than 650 stories published or broadcast in the Bay Area's eight most popular news media between the evening of Oct. 4 and the morning of Oct. 23.

Since it was nearly a foregone conclusion that John Kerry would win California, the more important information for voters in this state was local. In television, the differences among stations -- on the one gauge of stories about local ballot measures -- are telling:

(The above numbers do not equal 100% because they exclude congressional, state
Legislature and local races.)

Because their signals reach hundreds of localities, many with their own city council, school board and other local contests and ballot measures, it is difficult for television stations to cover them all within the time limits of a newscast. One might expect coverage of local contests only in major cities and at the county level.

However only KNTV Channel 11 made a serious effort to cover such races. KRON Channel 4, KPIX Channel 5 and KGO Channel 7 chose not to cover a single congressional, state legislative or local race in the newscasts we sampled.

Issues vs. horserace

In the realm of issue-oriented coverage, the Contra Costa Times and the Mercury News pulled ahead of the Chronicle by virtue of their aforementioned extensive voter guides. Were less prominently displayed stories running inside the local news section measured, the Chronicle might have closed on the two Knight Ridder papers. Grade the News assesses only the coverage we deemed most likely to be read or watched.

In television, KNTV Channel 11 still leads in issue coverage at an average of 10 minutes 49 seconds per hour (see chart below). KGO Channel 7 pulled into second place in this sample at 8:06, ahead of KTVU Channel 2 at 8:04. KRON Channel 4 came in at 6:12, and the laggard continues to be KPIX Channel 5, with a mere 4:18 per hour devoted to primarily to the issues. All stations fell from the running average the week before except for KRON, which rose by six seconds.

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. Extrapolating from the premiere evening newscast, no station would meet this standard.

We will release one more analysis after the election. For previous reports, look at the main page, www.gradethenews.org.

For more on the good, the bad and the so-so in Bay Area campaign coverage, see "trendspotting," and "campaign story highlights" 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
389 sq. in.
295 sq. in.
KTVU (Channel 2)
10:17 min:sec
8:04 min:sec
San Jose Mercury News
495 sq. in.
452 sq. in.
KRON (Channel 4)
9:27 min:sec
6:12 min:sec
KPIX (Channel 5)
7 min
4:18 min:sec
Contra Costa Times
527 sq. in.
444 sq. in.
KGO (Channel 7)
9:15 min:sec
8:06 min:sec
KNTV (Channel 11)
12:05 min:sec
10:49 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.) Starting on Oct. 19, we began to sample one hour of KPIX's evening newscasts -- the 6:30 p.m. and the first half of the 5-6 p.m. -- in order to have an hour per weeknight for all five stations. Earlier Ch. 5's hourly rate was computed on just the 6:30 newscast. 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, the editorial page, the front of the Sunday editorial section and all special campaign sections (e.g. Voter guides). 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
76%
3%
5%
5%
8%
4%
KTVU (Channel 2)
65
1
3
2
18
11
San Jose Mercury News
36
5
12
21
11
13
KRON (Channel 4)
85
0
0
0
13
2
KPIX (Channel 5)
88
0
0
0
12
0
Contra Costa Times
21
6
9
55
5
3
KGO (Channel 7)
66
0
0
0
24
10
KNTV (Channel 11)
45
0
13
6
21
16
Totals may not equal 100% due to rounding.

TRENDSPOTTING

The voters weigh in -- KGO Channel 7 did something that we haven't yet seen on any other English-language television station in the Bay Area since we started monitoring prime-time news -- a roundtable discussion with voters who were "undecided" in the presidential race, skillfully moderated by anchor Dan Ashley.

Rock climbers vs. citizens -- In the final two weeks of a high-stakes political campaign, all five television stations we monitored featured extensive reporting from Oct. 19 to 21 on the stories of hikers and rock climbers in the Yosemite Valley who were trapped by a sudden snowstorm. Usually the coverage topped the newscast. A drama affecting one or two families trumped elections at all levels affecting every Californian.

KPIX Channel 5 and KRON Channel 4 each spent more than 10 minutes in one broadcast on the snowbound hikers on Oct. 21, staking out the home of a hiker to capture a tearful family reunion. Even the normally sober KTVU Channel 2 was obsessed with the drama: Anchor Dennis Richmond urged viewers to wait after the commercial break to witness "their miraculous stories of survival."

(In that same broadcast, the only local campaign news was 12 seconds on San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom campaigning for local propositions J and K, "which would raise the city's sales tax by a quarter of a cent and increase the business tax. Newsom says if the propositions don't pass, the city could face devastating budget cuts.")

Television was not alone in its obsession with drama: The Chronicle stripped the story five-sixths of the way across the top of the front page on Oct. 22.

On TV, it was the same a few days before, Oct. 16 and 17 -- the killing of three members of a family in Brentwood headlined most of the TV stations.

It's a question of priorities. There were little more than a dozen hikers, so few would be directly affected by such a story. In comparison, hundreds of thousands of San Franciscans needed to know about the elections.

"Political Postcards" -- KNTV Channel 11 wins the award for originality in carving out large blocks of time for local campaign news in a series called "Political Postcards." The series, which ended Oct 22, helped boost the station's performance in our analysis, both in terms of the total amount of campaign news on the stations and in the portion devoted to the issues -- as opposed to "horse race" or strategy coverage.

A good example of that was a report on Oct. 18 by Damian Trujillo, who visited a school in the Santa Clara Unified School District to discuss school bond Measure J. Later in the program he returned to get both sides on Sunnyvale measures P and L. Anchor Allen Denton conducted an extended interview with a local school official, Benjamin P. Picard, who explained the potential impact of the $120 million measure.

We hope to see more such experiments from the station, whose news director, Jim Sanders, has repeatedly called campaign news a top priority. We also expect to see the project evolve. Almost all of the Postcards came from Alameda and Contra Costa counties, while only one in our sample was reported from San Francisco and none from San Mateo or Marin counties. While many of the postcards informed voters of pressing issues in therace, some appeared to try a little too hard to focus in on the process.

One story on Oct. 22 profiled Evan Low, 21, a candidate for city council in Campbell. The story did not outline any of his positions, mention the names of his opponents or even his party. All we learned was that he was a young man with gumption.

Another story, on the same day, was perhaps even more perplexing: a story about Julie Stephens volunteering for one of the presidential candidates. The reporter bleeped out whom she said she was working for, and digitally smudged her campaign buttons. "You may have noticed by now, we are going out of our way to not show you who Stephens is supporting. ... That's because the point of this story is not about getting involved with a candidate. It's about getting involved, period."

If you read Ms. Stephens' lips, however, you'd realize she's a Democrat working for John Kerry. Wouldn't you like to know that? We'd hope that in future iterations of the experiment, KNTV sticks to the facts and doesn't have to rely on.

Self-promotion -- One station couldn't help itself from using political coverage to draw attention to its own network products. On Oct 19, KPIX Channel 5 ran an interview with Bob Schieffer, anchor of CBS News' "Face the Nation." Turns out he wasn't on the station to discuss his views of the presidential race, but rather to sell his book, "Face the Nation: My Favorite Stories from the First 50 Years of the Award-winning News Broadcast," which comes with an accompanying DVD.

Deceptions -- KPIX Channel 5 and KNTV Channel 11 both are in the habit of practicing a minor deception. We saw three reports on the two stations in which network correspondents identified themselves as belonging to the local station. Both Don Kirk, who reported from Baghdad, and Aleen Sirgany, who reported on the presidential campaign from Canton, Ohio, identified themselves at the end of their reports on Oct. 22 as belonging to "CBS5 Eyewitness News." On Oct. 16, Jane Watrel, also on the campaign trail, signed off, "In Washington, Jane Watrel, NBC11 News." In fact, Ms. Watrel works for NBC's Television Stations Division, not KNTV.

Why does this matter? Stations that create the false impression that they pay for correspondents to fly all over the country or the world covering politics mask the lack of resources they actually devote to such topics.

Minor deceptions such as these also diminish the achievement of truly enterprising work, such as that of Hank Plante, KPIX's political reporter, who traveled to the swing state of Ohio in mid-October.

"Horse-race" reporting -- KRON's Phil Matier, also a columnist for the Chronicle, has been closely following the presidential race, and to a lesser extent, California campaigns. While his reports seem accurate and often call on the expertise of knowledgeable politicians and academics, much of it still seems to turn on who's ahead, not why voters ought to cast their ballots for or against. For example, on Oct. 10, Mr. Matier opined that Bill Clinton was brought in to campaign for John Kerry to "connect" with black voters. "It's all about turnout," he said. "I don't think either one of these candidates can get any more of the swing voters. ... Will the base turn out?"

That said, the station is clearly committed to highlighting intelligent conversation about politics before this election with its weekly half-hour prime-time politics program, "4 the Record." No other TV station has made that kind of commitment to campaign coverage.

Salaciousness -- Both the Chronicle and the Mercury News fell victim to sex scandal-mongering. In their Oct. 20 column, the Chronicle's Phil Matier and Andrew Ross told of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's strained political pillow talk with his wife under the headline, "Do we really want to know?" Our sentiments exactly. Why feign disgust and then crack jokes about lewdness?

The Mercury News on Oct. 23 covered the 14th District Assembly race between Rebecca Cohn and Ernie Konnyu by stressing in an article, "Fierce battle's tawdry tinge," that each had been accused of sexual harassment. Thankfully, the story got into the issues about halfway through the piece.

Sharp questions for candidates -- Some of the most probing television reporting came from KTVU's Rita Williams on Oct. 19. Her 3-minute piece on the race in the 14th Assembly district posed cogent questions to each of the candidates. To millionaire Republican Steve Poizner: Are you trying to buy votes? And: Why won't you say whom you support for president? To struggling Democrat Ira Ruskin: Are you beholden to unions? The answers got past the usual assessment of the two, which is that they differ little on the issues.

That coverage contrasts with a report on Oct. 22 on KNTV Channel 11, which stated that it seemed that both Mr. Poizner and Mr. Ruskin had "taken off the gloves," even though it quoted a campaign consultant saying the ads he viewed did not qualify as "mud-slinging." All that focus on campaign strategy distracted from the substance of the debate. An analysis by another reporter on the same station concluded that same day that the race was one of "a couple of horse races."

CAMPAIGN STORY HIGHLIGHTS

San Francisco Chronicle -- Bob Egelko drew a clear picture of the state of the U.S. Supreme Court in an Oct. 18 story outlining the issues at stake in a court whose composition hasn't changed in a decade: abortion rights, affirmative action, gay rights, religious freedom, federalism and freedom of speech. A Chronicle editorial on the same day sensibly pointed out that both sides in the fight over Proposition 61, the bond measure to aid children's hospitals, "contend they are advocating 'for the children'" -- a welcome recognition within an endorsement that there are points on either side of a complex issue.

Contra Costa Times -- On Oct. 18, the paper produced a solidly researched and sourced front-page article on how the economy factors into the perceived performance of presidential administrations -- and how that may or may not affect the election. The Times looked at how the respective performances of the last 14 administrations, since World War II, stacked up against one another according to various metrics. The paper relied on many expert sources to weigh in on the findings. The paper also included a helpful primer on the Electoral College system and how changes in it could affect the outcome of the presidential election.

KTVU Channel 2 -- Rob Roth on Oct. 18 produced a balanced 2 minute 51 second piece that neatly summarized San Francisco's Proposition F, which would allow non-citizen parents to vote in school board elections. With one sentence he brought context to the story: "Non-citizen voting is not a unique idea. Chicago allows non-citizens to vote in school boards elections, and so do several counties in Maryland and Massachusetts."

KPIX Channel 5 -- Dr. Kim Mulvihill skillfully used a campaign commercial by the late Christopher Reeve to scrutinize pro and con on state Proposition 71, the stem-cell-research initiative.

KGO Channel 7 -- On Oct 23, Willie Monroe got a good grip on both sides of Berkeley's Measure Q, which would de-emphasize prosecution for prostitution.

What do you think? Discuss it in The Coffeehouse.

WEEKLY UPDATES

More...
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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