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Politics and TV Can Mix

Faulty surveys are one reason for lack of coverage.

October 15, 2002|Tom Rosenstiel and Dave Iverson | Tom Rosenstiel is director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. Dave Iverson is director of Best Practices in Journalism. Both groups are funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

In an uneasy time, just one thing about this November's elections can be reliably predicted. Until election night, the primary medium by which Americans get news -- local television -- will mostly ignore the political campaigns.

With the exception of a few stations, this has become so standard that most Americans don't even consider local TV news a place to learn about politics. The consequence is that as voters know less about whom to vote for and why, advertising becomes even more central to elections and governing suffers.

Why has this happened?

The biggest reason is an accepted wisdom in television: Covering politics is an audience loser, a sure way to wind up at the bottom of the ratings heap. Are local broadcasters right? Do people really not care?

Much of the thinking about political coverage in local television traditionally has been based on the recommendations of TV consultants who help steer many local newsrooms toward the stories and story approaches they believe audiences want. They base their recommendations on audience surveys. And herein lies the problem.

A standard survey from one of the nation's major television consulting firms -- typical of those used industrywide -- has plenty of targeted questions on whether audiences want specific types of consumer news, including everything from where to shop to how to avoid getting ripped off. There are also questions to gauge interest in topics from parenting tips to pet care.

But the question about politics is put as follows: "How interested are you in news reports about issues and activities in government and politics?"

The less specific the question, the less useful the answer, according to polling professionals. In this case, the question was so general it was meaningless.

What would happen if the questions about politics were framed as specifically as those about pet care?

The Pew Research Center conducted a nationwide poll that included the standard consultant question on politics. Only 29% said they'd be very interested in that kind of reporting. Yet when people were asked whether they'd be interested in "news reports about what government can do to improve the performance of local schools," the percentage of "very interested" jumped to 59%. Similarly, when participants were asked whether they'd be interested in reports on what government could do to ensure that public places were safe from terrorism, the percentage of "very interested" rose to 67%.

Similar interest-level percentages were tallied for stories about reducing health-care costs. All of these topics, from schools to health care to public safety, have everything to do with politics and government.

This experiment in research methods suggests at least two lessons.

First, the research that has dominated TV consulting about covering public life is faulty. The standard questions on politics, at least from this consulting firm, were not social science as much as self-fulfilling prophecy.

Second, the reframed questions offer a guide for TV journalists about how to make stories about public life more relevant and more popular. They should frame the issue in a way that is relevant to people's lives -- how the issue affects their schools, their health, their safety -- and then connect the dots between the problems that people wrestle with and what government might do to be helpful.

Journalists need to focus on people and their problems, not politicians and theirs. When local television news does that, the results can be striking. As ratings for local TV news now are falling generally, setting aside old-style consulting and doubtful research probably are key to navigating an increasingly difficult future.

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