Exploring an Empty News Hole
American media seem never to run short of disillusioning experiences. When members of FAIR did a study of L.A. local TV news three years ago, we expected to find a lot of crime stories, and sure enough, we did. What we didn’t expect to find was zero campaign coverage only weeks before an election.
So this spring as L.A.’s April 8 election approached, it seemed like it might be interesting to look specifically at how local TV would handle the upcoming election. Angelenos not only had to select a mayor, we also had a couple of city council district seats open, a hotly contested city attorney’s race, and a historic ballot issue to authorize a commission that would rewrite the city charter.
Some valorous community activists and students at Cal State Northridge volunteered to watch eight of the local nighttime TV newscasts for the 15 days prior to the election. We monitored three half-hour 11 p.m. network owned and operated (“O&O”) stations (KCBS, KNBC and KABC), four 10 p.m. one-hour English-language broad- casts (KTLA, KCAL, KTTV and KCOP), and the city’s most popular Spanish-language broadcast (KMEX).
At the end of the first week, we found that the election was having a hard time penetrating the frenzy over the Heaven’s Gate cult suicide. KTTV, the L.A. Fox affiliate, came in about average, devoting just short of three minutes (2:56) to the election. The other English-language one-hour newscasts (KTLA, KCAL, KCOP) provided between five and eight minutes of reporting. Not a lot by any means, but a deluge compared to the complete absence of reporting on KCBS and ratings news leader KNBC. Although KCBS’s 11 p.m. news couldn’t find even one second for the election, it managed to squeeze in reports on a skateboarding dog (3/24/97) and Easter egg-hunting chimpanzees (3/28/97).
But the truly staggering results were still to come. Having provided zero coverage two weeks before the election, KNBC’s nighttime newscast devoted a grand total of 2 minutes and 10 seconds the week leading up to election day. Reporting on the mayor’s race for the first time on April 4, barely three days before the polls opened, KNBC introduced the election to its viewers by reporting that pop music artist Sheryl Crow had performed at “Sean Penn’s nightclub” for a Tom Hayden fund-raiser.
Throughout the study period, campaign advertising outweighed campaign news coverage on the O&O newscasts. On KCBS and, advertising—deliberately crafted as propaganda—outweighed news coverage by more than four to one. While TV stations, particularly the O&Os, appeared willing to accept advertising revenue from political campaigns, they appeared unwilling to spend money covering the campaigns themselves.
Particularly worrisome was the fact that much of the advertising concerned the city attorney’s race, a story that got scant coverage across the dial. Not a single story was devoted to the attorney’s race on the three local O&O newscasts during the study period.
The one-hour 10 p.m. newscasts provided relatively more election coverage on a wider array of issues. For instance, KCOP covered the District 15 city council race, charter reform, the school bond issue, the city attorney’s race and the Inglewood mayor’s race, as well as the L.A. mayoral contest. Although one would hardly call KCOP’s reports in-depth (in total, the stories amounted to just over 3 percent of its total news broadcast over the 15-day period), they appear encyclopedic when compared with the O&Os’ skimpy and narrowly focused reporting.
I continue to be startled by the fact that after completing these studies, I often hear from news directors and reporters who all but thank me for pointing out the truth of what they’re doing. When they chose news as a career, they didn’t think they were going into show business. I worry, however, that the public may soon forget what news is supposed to be.
Each semester I teach a lesson about TV news to my undergraduate journalism students at Cal State Northridge. I ask them: Why do people think they ought to watch the news? And they tell me that they don’t want to feel stupid when other people talk about what’s going on. You know, the fire down in Anaheim and that O.J. Simpson is losing his Bentley.
It’s never occurred to them that the news plays a role in the democratic process. And who can blame them? There’s precious little in local news that would suggest to them that the news has a responsibility to be anything but entertaining.
Barbara Bliss Osborn is a professor of journalism at Cal State Northridge and a FAIR associate.
The L.A. Elections on L.A. TV
(March 24-April 7, 1997)
Station Election Election
KNBC 2:10 9:20
KCBS 3:15 13:25
KABC 7:32 16:20
KTLA 16:30 2:50
KMEX 16:41 0:00
KTTV 17:22 6:00
KCAL 20:37 N.A.
KCOP 26:15 4:30