Election Night 2012: All Politics Is Local

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As Superstorm Sandy showed us last week, TV stations in America remain a prime, if not the prime, source of news in times of crisis. The better stations also shine during election season. A Pew Research Center study in late October showed that 38% of U.S. adults regularly get their election news in October from local TV—more than from the Internet (36%) and network news (31%), while trailing only cable news (41%).

Whether it was covering hopefuls for the White House or the local sheriff’s offices, here’s a quick trip around the country to spotlight some stations that did it best.

WCPO’s Citizen Inquisitors

Seasoned political reporters can be counted on to pose savvy questions to candidates, but there’s something to be said for letting viewers who are particularly affected by policy matters ask questions directly of the politicians. WCPO Cincinnati’s “Democracy 2012” initiative, appearing in the final five minutes of the 6 p.m. news from late September through Nov. 2, presented the political candidates for anything from the Senate down to the hyper-local races with video of viewers in their market posing their gravest concerns. And these were no random Area Man or Woman; they were carefully selected people from a range of backgrounds—say, small business owners, or a first-time homeowner—with pointed questions on topics close to their hearts.

Armed with the video queries, WCPO’s reporters then chased down the pols for their answers. “Some are surprised by the depth of the questions they get from regular people who are not traditional journalists,” said Lane Michaelsen, WCPO news director.

The Scripps station got more than 25 local candidates to address the viewer questions. Besides the well-viewed 6 p.m. news, the answers appear on the Web and on mobile.

“As a swing state, we give people as much coverage as they need,” said Michaelsen, “to make the best choice they can.”

Debate Fit for a KING

The first debate for governor of the state of Washington, broadcast statewide Oct. 11, helped get residents familiar with the major issues (even if candidates Rob McKenna and Jay Inslee slipped into canned-comment mode now and then). The second, five days later, was held at KING Seattle headquarters, with a panel comprising the Belo station’s political reporter and a pair of veteran investigative reporters firing questions toward the podiums. That one dug a lot deeper, and touched on issues more pertinent to the Seattle DMA.

The panelists also used some hard-hitting investigative reports—such as one on corruption in the city’s famed ferry system that won a DuPont award, and another on welfare fraud that earned a Peabody—to inform their questions. “It really challenged [the candidates] on their thinking,” said Mark Ginther, executive news director at KING.

The hour-long debate, which aired following Obama-Romney II, gave Seattle voters a clearer idea on some issues that did not get much, if any, airtime in the previous statewide debate. As a result, Seattle voters are going to the polls with a greater understanding of what their gubernatorial hopefuls are thinking on key issues—campaign ads notwithstanding.

Snackable Debates in Michigan

While Michigan is a battleground state, the political ads dominating the screen leading up to Nov. 6 were more about the proposals on the ballot across the state. The initiatives touched on a range of hot-button issues, ranging from health care to renewable energy, and even a controversial bridge proposed for the region.

As one might expect, the ads that pushed either side of the various proposals hardly told viewers the whole story.

“There’s a lot of confusion,” said Jam Sardar, news director at Young Broadcasting’s WLNS Lansing.

So Sardar and his crew produced a halfdozen “mini-debates,” as the station called them, focused on the ballot initiatives. The debaters included elected officials, union leaders and other public figures. They run four minutes long, fed into on-air segments, and ran on the Web or on mobile.

As Obama-Romney, not to mention Biden-Ryan, showed America, political debates have made something of a comeback as a television spectacle.

“They tell the story and get the facts out in a way that viewers find engaging and compelling,” said Sardar.

WLNS producers also cobbled together the six minidebates for an hour-long primetime special Nov. 1.

Sardar and his newsroom colleagues hope WLNS’ snackable discourses offered some clarity amidst the clutter dominating the airwaves in recent months. “With as many ads as there are, it’s hard to watch them and know who’s telling the truth,” he said. “These offer a clear picture of what the ballot initiatives are actually about.”

Noshing in New Hampshire

It’s actually a presidential hopeful’s dream come true: an abundance of face time with a large group of undecided voters. That was the strategy behind New Hampshire station WMUR’s “Candidate Café.” In advance of the state’s bellwether primary back in January, eight of the then-GOP presidential hopefuls took their turn breaking bread at an eatery with between 12 and 20 undecided voters in the state. The residents, not the reporters, conducted the interviews.

“We let the voters ask the questions and really run the show,” said Alisha McDevitt, news director at the Hearst TV station. “They got to see the candidates in a completely different light.”

For his part, Rick Perry flipped open his laptop and narrated a slide show of family pictures, showing a side of the blustery Texas governor some may not have been familiar with.

Other aspects of the give-and-take were edgier, and just as revealing. “As they sat around the table, some voters got aggressive about the issues they felt passionate about,” said McDevitt.

The eight Café packages flavored WMUR’s 6 p.m. news, with an average of 60,000 viewers watching, and were baked into a primetime special.

WMUR also took the candidates out on a mystery trip—driving them somewhere in the DMA, and presumably separating them from their talking points, for spontaneous questions from people on the street for “Candidate Road Trip” segments.

“There was really great interaction between the candidates and the people,” said McDevitt.

Seeking Truth in Chicago

When WLS Chicago hosted a Congressional debate in mid-October, one man was working harder than the moderator or the House hopefuls on the set. Chuck Goudie, WLS’ veteran chief investigative reporter, was vetting the candidates’ statements for veracity, along with his producers, with a hard deadline rapidly approaching.

The debate ran until 9:30 p.m., and Goudie’s “Truth Squad” segment, around 2½ minutes long, was going in the 10 p.m. news. If the candidates were thinking of floating a point-scoring, if factually suspect, whopper during the debate, they had to think twice with the Truth Squad putting their words to the test.

“The Truth Squad found both truth and some stretching of the truth on both sides,” said Jennifer Graves, WLS VP and news director. “Using public records and past reports, they could verify, or knock down, what the candidates were saying.”

In case viewers missed the ABC-owned station’s late news, they could see Goudie the next morning on WLS program Windy City Live sharing his findings.

WLS’ Truth Squad has vetted political ads in the past, but Oct. 13 was the first time the gumshoe crew set its gimlet eye on a debate. “We threw a lot of resources into it,” said Graves.

Michael Malone

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.