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Election Coverage Panned in NewsLab Study

A study from the University of Wisconsin's NewsLab to be released later today found that Midwest TV stations in nine markets aired an average of 36 seconds of election coverage in a typical 30-minute's worth of news broadcast, with only foreign policy and "unintentional injury" stories getting less airplay.

Using a grant from media/campaign reformer The Joyce Foundation of Chicago, NewsLab analyzed up to an hour per night of early evening and late-evening newscasts on 36 Big Four network affiliates in nine markets between Sept. 7 and Oct. 6. The markets were Chicago; Springfield, Ill.; Detroit; Lansing, Mich.; Minneapolis-St. Paul; Cleveland; Columbus; Madison, and Milwaukee.

A total of 1,629 election-related stories aired over that time period, and more than half of all broadcasts surveyed contained at least one story primarily on elections, average length of a minute and eight seconds, according to the analysis.

Horse race and strategy stories outnumbered "substantive issue" coverage by a margin of about three to one (63% to 23%).

Calling the findings consistent with previous studies, NewsLab Director Ken Goldstein said the analysis showed that "there is relatively little coverage of campaigns and elections on local news."

The National Association of Broadcasters slammed the study: "It's hard to take seriously a report that purports to document political coverage of local TV stations that ignores debates, public affairs programs, morning news, noon news, 4 p.m. news, and Saturday and Sunday morning programming," said NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton. This is a bogus study from a group with a biased agenda."

Broadcasters have taken issue with similar University of Wisconsin studies , suggesting they were slanted to support a media reform bias. Madison is arguably the cradle of media consolidation criticism.

In February 2005, NAB pointed out that a similar study dealt with only a fraction of the 211 markets, and did not include midday, morning, early afternoon 4 p.m. and late-night programming, pointing out that viewers get news 24/7.

The NewsLab included the following caveat in its methodology for the latest study.

"The sample is not a sample of all local television news broadcasts in the Midwest and therefore does not allow this study to speak to the content of all Midwest local news programming.It is, however, a sample of the some of the highest-rated programming from the capitol city and largest media market in five Midwestern states, allowing us to make generalizable comparisons among and between states in the sample."

Goldstein says that in a perfect world, he would study every daypart, but added that he thought it was fair to spotlight the late news and highest-rated early evening news, where he said most viewers get their information.

According to the analysis, election coverage came in ninth out of 12 categories in terms of time devoted to it in newscasts. The top was the ads at 10 minutes, seven seconds. Also topping election coverage were sports and weather (7 min., 1 sec.); Crime, 2 min., 27 sec.); other, 2 min., 18 sec.; local interest, 2 min., 1 sec; teasers, bumpers and intros, 1 min., 46 sec.; non-campaign government news, 1 min., 6 sec.; health stories, 1 min., 4 sec.; and business, economy, 1 min., 2 sec.

Trailing election coverage was foreign policy, 23 sec.; and something called unintentional injury, at 11 sec.

The Joyce Foundation is an outspoken critic of TV coverage and the money broadcasters make from political advertising. Foundation VP Lawrence Hansen said in comments on the study: "[T]elevision station owners reap millions of dollars from paid political advertising –which in turn drives up the cost of running for office and makes candidates dependent on special interests and large donors willing to pick up the tab,” Hansen said.

The report is the first of several planned news analyses running through summer 2007. The NewsLab also plans to continutally update the analysis .