BOB GARFIELD: Several reliable polls suggest that for most Americans, local television newscasts are a prime source for news about their communities. But are they a good source? University of Wisconsin and the Lear Center at the University of Southern California found that in the weeks leading up to the 2002 elections, in the top 50 TV markets, 56 percent of local TV newscasts didn't air a single story on any campaign. OTM's Paul Ingles reports on why some news departments steer away from political coverage, while others push themselves to break new ground on the subject. [TAPE PLAYS]
REPORTER ON TAPE: What this isn't is a typical day on the campaign trail. [TAPE ENDS]
PAUL INGLES: During the 2002 election season, Wisconsin Public Television's Jerry Huffman anchored a series of reports showing what happened when the candidates for governor allowed the TV station to temporarily take control of their campaign schedules. [START TAPE]
REPORTER ON TAPE: Instead of a day of choreographed events and bused-in supporters, the seven gubernatorial candidates have agreed to follow us all over Wisconsin to meet one on one with voters. [TAPE ENDS]
PAUL INGLES: The series earned a Lear Center Walter Cronkite Award for news producer Andy Moore. In an interview with the Lear Center, Moore said at first some of the candidates resisted this stab at political reality TV, but when some agreed, the others signed on for the ride into the unknown.
ANDREW MOORE: They were extremely uncomfortable. Some of them handled it better than others, and the more uncomfortable they felt, the better job I felt that we were doing. [LAUGHS]
PAUL INGLES: The Wisconsin Public Television effort stood out amid a local TV news landscape where truly innovative reporting on local politics and government is rare.
WALLY DEAN: News about our democracy is being pushed out of the way by a concern about live local, late-breaking coverage, which so often is about crime.
PAUL INGLES: That's former CBS producer Wally Dean, who helped conduct a five-year study of local commercial TV news content for the Project for Excellence in Journalism which found, to no one's surprise, 60 percent of lead stories were about crime, disasters, catastrophes, accidents, unusual weather -- in other words, anything that might include an emergency vehicle. Dean says stories on politics and government account for just 10 percent of local newscasts, because, he says, news managers believe or are told by their consultants that politics is boring to viewers, and that police tape and flashing lights are eyeball-grabbers. However, Dean's research also says, if done well, political reporting can still help stations win.
WALLY DEAN: And we've found that stations who have the best ratings and share retention from their lead-in programming actually run more political and business stories. They can survive and not run yellow police tape, but we've got to convince them.
PAUL INGLES: Karen Foss has anchored news as KSDK in St. Louis for over 20 years, and appeared with Wally Dean on a panel on local news held in Albuquerque in September. She says her station tries hard not to overdo crime coverage and to sometimes tell the more detailed political story. But when they do, they often get "the call" the next day.
KAREN FOSS: Those who are the consultants and the analysts sit down and look at, minute by minute, where the viewers have been. They will say: "Last night that story ran four minutes, and 20 percent of our audience left," and it really -there'll be no reflection on whether that was an important four minute story.
PAUL INGLES: Foss says the electronic meters hooked directly into TV sets that count audience in such detail in larger markets like hers are one factor that could be reducing civic reporting. In medium and small markets, ratings are usually drawn from old-style written diaries that can't single out a four-minute report on local government as a viewer-loser. It may, in fact, draw viewers says Susana Schuler, news chief of Nexstar Broadcasting which operates 25 medium and small market stations. She says people tend to be more active in local government in smaller communities, and therefore more interested in seeing such stories on the local news. Just how interested they are remains a mystery to local news managers.
SUSANA SCHULER: We tend to be more civic-minded than our viewers, but sometimes we don't know if that's good or bad. [LAUGHS] If that means they are or they would be if we just gave them more coverage, or if they're saying "I don't care about that stuff -- go tell me about the traffic accidents and the, you know, the fires" and the piddly little stuff that we think, you know -- Who does that affect? Not many.
PAUL INGLES: Schuler, Foss and many local news directors, surveyed by the local TV news project last year, say they don't have enough reporters to cover the news of the day in their market, much less to do investigative reporting about politics and civic issues. Critics of local TV news say shrinking staffs are a result of increasingly consolidated corporate ownership, cutting back to keep profit margins high. They ask: why not settle for slightly less profit in the name of the public interest?
SUSANA SCHULER: You can't go to Wall Street and say "Well now we're only going to make this much. Are you still going to support us?"
PAUL INGLES: Susana Schuler of Nexstar.
SUSAN SCHULER: You would have to get the entire industry on board to change that, and I don't see that happening.
PAUL INGLES: So, if getting more reporters isn't likely, the challenge then becomes how to do effective political and civic reporting on a shoestring. USC's Lear Center insists it can be done, so its annual awards acknowledge the best practices in reporting staples like candidate profiles, pieces exploring voters' concerns, and stories that check claims in debates or candidate and issue ads, like this report from KING-TV in Seattle. [TAPE PLAYS]
REPORTER'S SOUND CLIP FROM TAPE: Watch the commercials for Referendum 51, and you'd think this vote is all about your safety. Reality check? [TAPE ENDS]
PAUL INGLES: Jill Geisler is on the faculty of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies which trains professional journalists. She says one way to deepen coverage of local democracy in action is for television newsrooms to re-commit to beat reporting -- assigning a reporter to cover city hall, the state house or the congressional delegation, and not pulling them so often to cover breaking news.
JILL GEISLER: When you walk the halls of power, you frequently see what I would call "anticipatory journalism." It's the tip that someone gives you about an idea that could become a proposition -- that could become a bill --that could become a law. And, and you as a reporter are telling that story to people at a time when something can still be done about it.
PAUL INGLES: In the long run, says Geisler, the news story content mix, particularly on local commercial news programs, rests in the hands of the viewers, who can vote with their remotes by clicking to and staying with stations offering serious coverage of local issues and politics. For On the Media, I'm Paul Ingles. [MUSIC]