A new study by the Radio and Television News Directors Foundation says that most Americans — 65 percent of them — choose local television news as their top source of news and information. That’s more than twice as many people who said that local newspapers (28 percent) or network news (28 percent) were their main sources of news, and it’s nearly six times more than the number of people relying primarily on the internet (11.2 percent).
The question is, what do the majority of Americans learn about politics, government and public affairs when they turn to local television news?
Local news is a profit center, and winning big ratings is no small part of a news director’s job description. What kind of risks do news professionals take if they decide to give substantial, in-depth coverage to political campaigns?
Winners of the Walter Cronkite Award have proven, in one election season after another, that their stations can be market leaders, that covering politics isn’t ratings poison. All they need to do is apply to politics the same skills of good storytelling that they devote to covering consumer news, the health beat, Hollywood or any other mainstay of their news programming. Important news can also be interesting, compelling, entertaining news; public issues are just as rich with conflict, personality, suspense and local human interest as the rest of the stories that routinely lead the news.
Unfortunately — if you look at what actually airs on local TV stations — that’s not a majority viewpoint in the profession. Since 1998, the Lear Center Local News Archive has been monitoring and analyzing the political coverage on America’s local TV news. The Lear Center’s partner in much of this work — the NewsLab at the University of Wisconsin — has just released a report on the political coverage in Midwestern states during the 2006 midterm elections. Its findings? “In the month following the traditional Labor Day kickoff of the 2006 election campaign season, television stations in nine Midwest markets devoted an average of 36 seconds to election coverage during the typical 30-minute local news broadcast.” That’s about a fifth of the amount of time devoted to covering crime – and nearly a twentieth of the amount of advertising sold during the half-hour, a great deal of which went to paid political ads.
With so many Americans saying they turn first to local television news, I’d be more upbeat about the robustness of our democracy if more of local news looked like the kind of content that Cronkite Award winners, and their scattered, unsung peers, are managing to put on the air.