The Politics of Political Coverage

The general election is still more than four months away, but Theresa Wells-Ditton, of Dispatch Broadcast Group's WTHR Indianapolis, is already figuring out how the NBC affiliate will cover it.

Indiana is a Bush state, and Democrat Evan Bayh should return to the Senate. But the governor's office is up for grabs, the state House could go Republican, and a local Democratic congressman may be in trouble.

Wells-Ditton has her game plan, but she acknowledges, "I don't know that we are that much different than any other station in America. We will go wall-to-wall from 6 p.m. till it's over."

For most stations, election night is the culmination of months of political newsgathering and event coverage. "Broadcasters provide enormous amounts of election coverage," says Dennis Wharton of the National Association of Broadcasters, "in the form of local and national news, candidate debates, convention and election-night coverage, and get-out-the-vote initiatives."

But is it enough? TV critics have no squawk about election night, but they say most TV stations do a lousy job of covering the campaigns.

"Right now, the message from television is that politics is not important," says Meredith McGehee, of the Alliance for Better Campaign. "Laci Petersen is important. Michael Jackson is important. Because, if you watch the local news, that's what you see."

To back up their complaints, McGehee and others point to a 2002 survey of 122 stations by the Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California and the University of Wisconsin—Madison. The study found that, prior to elections, 56% of the broadcasts did not contain a single campaign story. What's more, campaign stories airing on the other stations were, on average, 89 seconds long. Only 27% focused on issues or analysis of campaign ads.

Legislation that is pending before the Senate would require stations to offer at least two hours a week of substantive campaign coverage in the 30 days before an election. The FCC is considering similar requirements.

The NAB opposes mandated coverage, arguing that broadcasters do far more than they are given credit for, citing a 2002 survey showing that 80% of voters believe that TV and radio stations were providing "the right amount" or "too much" coverage of the 2002 elections.

The NAB also points to the list of broadcasters that promise specific political coverage prior to elections:

  • Belo Corp.'s 19 TV stations are offering congressional and gubernatorial candidates five free minutes—four to make a pitch and one to answer a question. The stations will also air at least one hour a week of election coverage.
  • Hearst-Argyle's 25 TV stations with newsrooms have pledged to air at least five minutes of election coverage each night in the 30 days preceding the primary and general elections.
  • The New York Times'
    eight TV stations will provide at least five minutes a day of election coverage and voter-registration public-service announcements in the 30 days prior to elections.
  • Cox Television's 15 stations are offering five minutes of free time to each major congressional and gubernatorial candidate in a "significant" race. The segments will air at the end of weekend newscasts or will be packaged into 30-minute programs for airing on the weekend.
  • E.W. Scripps'
    10 TV stations are offering five minutes of free time to candidates between 5 p.m. and 11:35 p.m. in the 30 days prior to the general election. The station will also host debates.

"A common frustration for many stations," says Wharton, "is that incumbent politicians routinely reject our free-time offers upon advice of slick political consultants. The last thing that a high-priced consultant wants is for a candidate with a 95% name recognition to appear in unscripted debates and forums with opponents who have a 5% name recognition."

In addition to pushing for laws and regulations, McGehee's Alliance will be taking a hard look at how TV stations in at least five markets cover the elections this fall. "If there is a record of failure," McGehee says, "we may take the next step." What's that step? "To challenge the license, potentially."