Evaluating print and broadcast news in the San Francisco Bay Area from A to F.
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Grade the News analysis: 2004 primaries

3 Bay Area newscasts flunk Politics 101

TV, newspapers touched on local races only occasionally before March vote

If you missed the stories you needed from Bay Area television to make informed decisions in the March 2 election, perhaps you blinked.

America's most relied-upon source of news -- local television -- is required to serve the public in exchange for free use of the airwaves. But in the weeks before the election, when public service was needed most, three of the five most-watched stations each devoted one minute or less per nightly newscast to candidates' positions or the merits of ballot issues.

Newspapers overall had more coverage than television, but they too neglected some contentious races. Some key political battles were not even mentioned on the pages readers were most likely to read.

A Grade the News analysis of coverage during the week before and the third week before the election shows KPIX Channel 5, KGO Channel 7 and KRON Channel 4 aired more minutes of paid political ads than issue-oriented campaign reporting. Even when other kinds of campaign coverage were counted -- voting logistics and "horserace" reports on who's ahead or candidate strategy -- ABC affiliate KGO still had more political ads than journalism.

None of those three stations gave more than 3% of their total news time to the issues in the campaigns.

Average space or time devoted to campaign coverage

News organization
Total campaign coverage
per day
Issue-centered
campaign coverage per day
San Francisco Chronicle
198 sq. in.
111 sq. in.
KTVU (Channel 2)
5 min.
3 min.
San Jose Mercury News
187 sq. in.
123 sq. in.
KRON (Channel 4)
3 min.
1 min.
KPIX (Channel 5)
1.9 min.
24 sec.
Contra Costa Times
124 sq. in.
84 sq. in.
KGO (Channel 7)
2.1 min.
46 sec.
KNTV (Channel 11)
4.3 min.
2.5 min.

For reference, a newspaper page has about 240 square inches. A television newscast has about 20 minutes of news time per half-hour (after subtracting commercials and routine sports and weather reports.) All weekday newscasts were hour-long but KPIX's. Channel 5 airs only half-hour shows adjacent to prime time. Weekend newscasts are all 30 minutes long.

Two other stations, KTVU Channel 2 and KNTV Channel 11, produced considerably more news voters could use at the polls -- three minutes and two and a half minutes respectively per premiere evening newscast. That's between 7 and 8% of total newscast time.

Some prominent journalism reformers have recommended television newscasts adopt a minimum of five minutes per night of campaign issue coverage in the month before an election. At the rate observed in the study, over the course of an average night's worth of newscasts in other time slots, not even KTVU or KNTV looked likely to meet that goal.

In contrast, the Bay Area's three most popular newspapers, the San Francisco Chronicle, San Jose Mercury News and Contra Costa Times, produced at least a third of a page per day of issue coverage in stories starting on their front and local front pages. That represents at least 10% of the space -- including continuation of stories on inside pages -- given the most prominently displayed stories.

The Mercury News led the pack with a half page per day of election news prominently displayed. In addition, the papers made extensive use of their editorial pages and ran special sections to help voters make informed decisions. The newspapers stood out in another way -- they got high marks for generating original reports gathered by their own journalists, instead of recycling information from the newswires.

But even newspapers gave short shrift to local and statewide ballot questions. Although voters across the nine-county Bay Area faced choices of a total of 65 ballot measures and dozens of candidates, coverage fell far behind reporting on the Democratic presidential primary, a contest all but decided by the time Californians entered voting booths. Two propositions -- Prop 55, to raise $12 billion in bonds for school construction and Prop 56, to amend the state constitution so the budget could be passed with a smaller super-majority -- were rarely mentioned during the study period.

At the same time, TV viewers were pelted with a constant barrage of political ads, whose claims went entirely unchallanged and unexplained by the news stations whose revenues got a boost by selling the air time. Only the Chronicle and the Mercury News bothered to address political advertising prominently. That analysis is the subject of a forthcoming report.

To level the playing field between print and broadcast in the study, only stories beginning on the papers' front pages and local-news section fronts were considered. Every story in the most-watched evening newscast was analyzed. On weekdays, all but KPIX produces an hour-long evening newscast adjacent to prime time. On KPIX's suggestion, its 6:30 p.m. half-hour newscast was examined.

Papers lead in coverage

Much of the coverage did not take on the issues at all. It was "horserace" coverage -- polls, campaign strategy, fumbles, "performance" of candidates in a debate and charges and countercharges not debating public policy. We defined "issue" reporting as candidate positions, questions of character and the substance of propositions and measures, analysis of political ads and endorsements.

Issue coverage added up to just under half of the total political coverage in all media.

In overall campaign coverage, the Mercury News, the Chronicle, the Times and KTVU were all clustered at the top. They devoted between 16% and 18% of total front pages and newscast coverage to election-related themes.

By the reckoning of Chris Lopez, managing editor of the Contra Costa Times, the paper earned about a 7 on a scale of 1 to 10. But overall he was proud of his coverage. "I'm a political junkie," Mr. Lopez said. "I like politics. I think elections and political reporting are one of the fundamental responsibilities of a newspaper."

Mr. Lopez was most pleased with a special election guide he published on Feb. 15, three weeks before the election and earlier than most other Bay Area newspapers. He wanted to help the growing number of voters who cast ballots by mail, he said. The Mercury News published its guide a week later, and the Chronicle, the weekend before the election.

Big differences among local stations

The big surprise was KNTV, which in Grade the News' last study in the summer of 2003 had scored the lowest overall for news quality. During this election cycle, though, the station devoted 12% of its news time, or 4.3 minutes, to total campaign coverage.

"There are few issues that are more important to viewers than how their tax dollars are being spent," said Jim Sanders, the San Jose station's vice president of news, adding that he assigned a middle manager in the newsroom to make sure there was some political coverage on the air every day. "Interesting sometimes has to give way to important, and we are the gatekeepers who have to make critical decisions about what's important."

Other stations, though, devoted little attention to campaigns. KRON spent an average of 3 minutes, or 8% of its newscasts, on all campaign stories; KGO spent 2.1 minutes, or 6% of the total; and KPIX spent just 1.6 minutes, or 9% of its half-hour news time, on campaigns. None of those three stations allocated more than a quarter of its already scant campaign coverage to congressional, state or local races, including propositions 55 through 58.

Akilah Monifa, spokeswoman for KPIX, said the numbers don't reflect the station's dedication to political coverage. She said that with five newscasts a day between 5 a.m. and 11 p.m., the study missed some of the best reporting. Due to equipment failure and schedule changes, KPIX was recorded only 12 of the 14 nights. Its averages were adjusted for the smaller sample size.

Kevin Keeshan, news director at KGO, declined comment. Stacy Owen, news director at KRON did not return email and phone messages, nor did Ed Chapuis, news director at KTVU.

Bay Area contests overlooked

The most covered story of the campaign usually didn't require any Bay Area reporters or photographers. On average, 61% of all campaign coverage in the sample focused on the presidential primary campaign, where TV footage came from a network, and articles often came from wire services like the Associated Press. KPIX devoted fully 86% of its campaign coverage to the national race, more than any other newsroom; The Times reserved the most of its election coverage for the rest of the ballot, allocating only 39% to the presidential primary, the least among Bay Area news media.

Three weeks before the California primary, Democrat John Kerry was already sweeping the primaries in other states and trouncing all rivals in the polls. The television coverage that ensued tried in vain every night to make the contest look exciting and "new."

Amount of campaign coverage devoted to each contest

News organization

Pres.
prim.

Cong-
ress

State-
legis.

Local
races

Prop
55

Prop
56

Props
57 & 58

Local
ballot
measures

Mult.
races

San Francisco Chronicle
47%
3%
7%
9%
0%
1%
4%
20%
10%
KTVU (Channel 2)
78
0
0
0
0
7
6
9
0
San Jose Mercury News
40
0
15
18
3
0
13
12
0
KRON (Channel 4)
77
0
0
0
0
0
8
12
4
KPIX (Channel 5)
86
0
0
0
0
0
3
7
4
Contra Costa Times
39
3
0
12
0
0
20
19
9
KGO (Channel 7)
75
0
0
0
0
9
13
4
0
KNTV (Channel 11)
48
0
0
4
6
5
12
19
6
Totals may not equal 100% due to rounding.

Meanwhile there were literally hundreds of local and statewide contests that were overlooked on television. If present in newspapers, they were usually presented on less-read inside pages.

Races for Congress barely registered in the study period. The Chronicle and the Contra Costa Times each did one story, and no one else did anything. For example, there was one contest, though not a very competitive one, for the seat of Democrat Tom Lantos, which got a mention in the Chronicle and Mercury News. Other, more competitive races also went mostly uncovered on display pages.

Only the Chronicle and the Mercury News seemed to care about the state Legislature. Candidates for state office were given 7% of political coverage in the Chronicle and 15% in the Mercury News.

The lack of buzz in California's presidential primary offered an opportunity for some newsrooms. Because the national race was a "a foregone conclusion," said David Satterfield, managing editor of the Mercury News, "we were able to focus our resources a little bit more locally."

Only the three papers plus KNTV reported on any local candidates. The Chronicle gave them 9% of political coverage, including an informative guide to gay Republican candidates; the Mercury News, 18%; Contra Costa Times, 12%; and KNTV, 4%.

Local ballot measures, of which there were 65 across the nine-county Bay Area, fared better -- 13% of political coverage overall. But only a few specific measures got any airtime or ink on prominent pages.

Ms. Monifa explained KPIX's low level of local coverage this way: "In this area where we have so many counties to cover, we have to do a balancing act. Someone in San Francisco isn't going to be interested in something happening in Alameda County, necessarily. You don't want to spend too much time on any one area where you might alienate folks."

But Dave Iverson, executive director of Best Practices in Journalism, a national foundation-sponsored reform initiative based in San Francisco, said he was surprised that more news organizations weren't more local, since that is their franchise.

"The primary duty is to connect the dots for people between what affects their lives and the decisions that are made for them -- be it classroom size, prescription drugs, or being safe when you drive across the Golden Gate Bridge," Mr. Iverson said. "You have to cover what happens under the rotunda in Sacramento, but the story starts back in the classroom."

How much is enough?

While there is no consensus among journalists on the minimum airtime for TV political coverage during the campaign season, some media-reform organizations have bemoaned the shrinking amount of coverage of campaigns, as well as sound bites that have gradually been reduced to sound barks.

A White House advisory panel in 1998 recommended a voluntary standard of five minutes devoted to candidates' positions and other issues that might help voters decide. Before the elections of 2000, the Alliance for Better Campaigns, a Washington, D.C., public-interest research group that advocates for media reform, proposed five minutes of "candidate-centered discourse." A number of stations across the country and even a few network executives have subscribed to the idea. Studies of initiatives by the Alliance and by Best Practices, a project launched by Wisconsin Public Television, show that such pledges translated into more coverage, longer sound bites and more discussion of the issues.

"It was something that the leaders of networks felt that they could do," said Matthew Hale, who authored a study on the campaign coverage in 2002 for the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California.

While some TV reporters, notably KTVU political reporter Randy Shandobil, let candidates talk, many news stories were so compressed that candidates were merely seen gesturing and moving their lips on the stump as the anchor narrated who was ahead in the polls.

Star power helps 2 propositions

KNTV and the Mercury News were the only news organizations in our survey periods to cover Proposition 55. KNTV gave it two stories; the Mercury News, one.

Only half of newsrooms covered Proposition 56, even though it was clearly controversial, judging by the volume of commercials, both pro and con. Some ads claimed the state ballot measure would end the "food fight" over budgets in Sacramento. Others condemned it as just "another blank check for the Legislature." The Chronicle, KTVU, KGO and KNTV, covered the proposition, but the other four newsrooms did not, at least in a prominent space or time in the sample period. One editor who did cover the proposition regretted not giving it more attention.

"Probably the most important for us to cover was Prop. 56, which was the subject of considerable advertising on both sides," Jim Brewer, politics and government editor at the Chronicle, wrote in a somewhat self-critical e-mail. "The fact that we probably produced more copy on the two props sponsored by the governor is evidence that we did not quite hit the mark."

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's pet propositions, 57 and 58, got significantly more coverage. The linked bond measures, which raise $15 billion in emergency loans for the state and then prohibit future borrowing, got 10% of overall news time or space devoted to elections. The Contra Costa Times gave them the most space -- 20% of its election coverage -- and the Mercury News gave 13%.

Why did these propositions get so much more attention than the other two? Perhaps it was because their chief spokesman was so photogenic. "In an off-year election, if the top of the ticket gets his face behind something, it gets the most coverage," Prof. Hale said. "Schwarzenegger talked about the propositions on Jay Leno. He's great at getting press."

Issues take a back seat

Overall, the stations offered voters little issue-oriented reporting in their premier evening newscasts.

All the newspapers and KNTV and KTVU emphasized issue reporting; KRON, KPIX and KGO took mostly the less-informative horserace route. The horserace element was even more evident in coverage of the presidential race, with 60 percent falling in that category.

Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a news media research and advocacy organization in Washington, D.C., said that since issues are more nuanced and change less often than horserace reporting, the latter is easier to do for political reporters looking for the latest scoop.

"It fits the grammar of news, which is that it has to be new," Mr. Rosenstiel said. Meanwhile, he said, reporting who's up and who's down turns off viewers and readers from politics, who view it as a cynical exercise. "It alienates your audience," he said.

Two political scientists, Stephen J. Farnsworth of Mary Washington College and S. Robert Lichter, president of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, wrote in a paper last year that local TV campaign coverage across the country is dominated by "strategic elements." Focusing on how campaigns are operating, and not what they are saying, can have a corrosive effect on politics, they argue.

Some researchers make the argument that ultimately television stations underestimate their viewers, and that it makes good business sense to provide important news.

"The reason that television gives for having less political coverage is that the viewers aren't interested," Prof. Farnsworth said in an interview. "But the evidence suggests that issue-oriented coverage isn't driving viewers away."

How the study was done

For television, the study ran from Feb. 11 to 18 (excepting Valentine's Day due to a recording error), and from Feb. 24 to March 1, with two missing programs for KPIX. For newspapers, the study ran from Feb. 12 to 18, and from Feb 25 to March 2.

To be sure the analysis was objective, two researchers independently coded a subset of stories. Agreement between them exceeded the 80% standard for social science

Caroline Keough also helped with our analysis.

What do you think? Discuss it in The Coffeehouse.

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A project of the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at San Jose State University, Grade the News is affiliated with the Graduate Program in Journalism at Stanford University and KTEH, public television in Silicon Valley.

Monitoring the Bay Area's most popular news media:

Contra Costa Times

Knight Ridder

San Francisco Chronicle

Hearst

San Jose Mercury News

Knight Ridder

KTVU, Oakland (FOX)

KTVU, Oakland (FOX)

KRON, San Francisco

KRON, San Francisco

KPIX, San Francisco (CBS)

KPIX, San Francisco (CBS)

KGO, San Francisco (ABC)

KGO, San Francisco (ABC)

KNTV, San Jose (NBC)

KNTV, San Jose (NBC)

 

Bay Area media advocates:

Media Alliance
Center for the Integration and Improvement of Journalism at SFSU
Maynard Institute
Youth Media Council
Project Censored
New California Media
Society of Professional Journalists, Northern California chapter
National Writers Union Bay Area chapter

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