Monitoring Local News Coverage's Ability to Meet the Public's Informational Needs
Kimberly Nalder, California State University - Sacramento
Local television remains the number one source of news for most Americans. At election time, the importance of this role is magnified, as citizens need substantive coverage of issues and candidates to make informed voting decisions. The Sacramento Media Group (SMG) partnered with researcher Kimberly Nalder at California State University at Sacramento (CSUS) to collect data on English and Spanish language news programming in Sacramento before the February 2008 CA presidential primary. Working with Common Cause, SMG also carried out a multi-phase project aimed at urging local television broadcasters to provide more substantial news coverage during the weeks prior to the February 2008 CA presidential primary.
The project findings demonstrate differences in coverage of the 2008 February primary versus the 2006 general election. The vast majority of half-hour broadcasts in 2008 included a story on the election or on government officials running for office. As expected, superficial storylines dominated the broadcasts, but the ratio of those stories to issue/ad-watch stories was slightly less than 3:1—better than several previous studies have found in other markets. Another striking difference between the February 2008 primary and the November 2006 general coverage was the ratio of political advertisements to political stories. In 2006, seven ads ran for every story, but in the recent cycle, the ratio was roughly 2:1. The analysis also showed that stories surrounding the February 2008 primary were much more likely to focus on candidates than on propositions, by a ratio of about 5:1. SMG plans to work with CSUS to build on these findings and stimulate a more comprehensive examination of the quality of news and information media broadcast to each community served.
The team also recruited a Citizen Advisory Panel, composed of diverse community leaders (activists, attorneys, board members, professors, librarians, etc.) that met regularly to consult on the project timeline and plans for future SMG activities. The delegation agreed on a set of guidelines proposed by the 1998 “Gore Commission,” including the recommendation for five minutes a night of locally produced coverage of substantive campaign issues in the month before the election. Five members of this SMG project delegation then met with managers of commercial television stations broadcasting local content, urging them to meet this minimum standard of five minutes a night of substantive, locally produced election coverage and requesting that they send a letter summarizing their plans for election-related programming. The delegation also presented resource information to station management that included data on how substantive news and public affairs programming can draw audiences and high ratings.