Election Coverage Accounts for 36 Seconds
of Typical 30-Minute Local TV Newscast,
UW Analysis Shows

Milwaukee TV election coverage parallels 5-state average,
Madison stations air almost twice as much;
Campaign strategy and horserace stories dominate
limited election coverage by local TV news

October 12, 2006

In the month following the traditional Labor Day kickoff of the 2006 election campaign season, television stations in nine Midwest markets devoted an average of 36 seconds to election coverage during the typical 30-minute local news broadcast, a University of Wisconsin analysis shows.

By contrast, the typical early- and late-evening local news broadcasts contained more than 10 minutes of advertising, over seven minutes of sports and weather, and almost two-and-a-half minutes of crime stories.

The findings are from the first in a series of analyses running through the summer of 2007 of how local news broadcasts cover politics and government compiled into the Midwest News Index, a new project of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s NewsLab. The analysis traces broadcast news coverage in media markets in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan and Ohio, all of them featuring highly competitive campaigns for state office this year.

The UW NewsLab analysis captured up to one hour per night of the early- and late-evening broadcasts on 36 NBC, CBS, ABC and FOX affiliates in nine Midwest markets between September 7 and October 6. The analysis covered the largest media market and state capital city in each state: Chicago, Springfield, Detroit, Lansing, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Cleveland, Columbus, Madison and Milwaukee.

Typical 30-Minute Local TV News Broadcast Breakdown

  5-State Average Milwaukee Madison
Advertising 10 min 7 sec 9 min 16 sec 10 min 22 sec
Sports and weather 7 min 1 sec 6 min 41 sec 7 min 11 sec
Crime 2 min 27 sec 3 min 11 sec 2 min 7 sec
Other 2 min 18 sec 2  min 29 sec 2 min 27 sec
Local interest 2 min 1 sec 1 min 58 sec 1 min 51 sec
Teasers, bumpers, intros 1 min 46 sec 2 min 1 min 21 sec
Non-campaign
government news
1 min 6 sec 54 sec 56 sec
Health 1 min 4 sec 1 min 22 sec 1 min 19 sec
Business, economy 1 min 2 sec 48 sec 52 sec
Election coverage 36 sec 36 sec 1 min 5 sec
Foreign policy 23 sec 31 sec 21 sec
Unintentional injury 11 sec 13 sec 4 sec

Highlights of the initial report include:

  • Between September 7 and October 6, the UW NewsLab found that 171 election-related stories aired in Milwaukee, while 280 election-related stories ran in Madison. This compares to the five-state average of 181 election-related stories. Of the more than 1,800 broadcasts analyzed by UW NewsLab in the nine TV markets (900 hours of programming), 1,629 election related stories aired. These include 958 stories that were primarily about campaigns and elections and 671 stories that either tangentially included elections or made even a single mention of a candidate running for office in November 2006.
  • In coverage of elections, 50 percent of stories in Milwaukee focused on strategy and horserace, while 25 percent of stories focused on issues. In Madison, 69 percent of stories focused on strategy and horserace, while 19% of stories focused on issues. Across the five-state region, coverage of strategy and horserace stories vastly outweighed substantive issue coverage by a margin of almost 3 to 1 (63 percent to 23 percent).
  • In Milwaukee, 38 percent of the stories aired focused on the race for governor, while 16 percent focused on voting issues. In Madison, 35 percent of stories focused on the gubernatorial race, 13 percent focused on the attorney general race, and 11 percent focused on state legislative races.

“In the weeks leading up to an election, campaign coverage took a back seat to crime, accidents, sports and weather, celebrities and, most of all, commercials. Even when the stations did turn their woefully short attention span to elections, they primarily told their viewers who was likely to win, while offering next to nothing viewers could use to make up their own minds,” Democracy Campaign director Mike McCabe said.

Compared with the other eight TV markets included in the study, Madison was a notable bright spot, McCabe said. Broadcasts captured by the UW NewsLab study showed Madison stations aired nearly 100 more election-related stories during the four-week period than the five-state average and 62 more than the next closest market, Minneapolis-St. Paul. Madison stations also devoted almost twice as much time to campaign-related stories – 1 minute, 5 seconds in a typical news broadcast compared to the five-state average of 36 seconds. Twin Cities stations were again closest to Madison, airing an average of 50 seconds worth of campaign-related coverage in a typical broadcast.

UW NewsLab is directed by UW-Madison political science professor Ken Goldstein. The state-of-the-art facility has the infrastructure, technical skill and supervisory capability to capture, clip, code, analyze and archive any media in any market – domestic or international – in real time. The Wisconsin NewsLab archives include data collected in the 2002 and 2004 national elections, and are the most comprehensive and systematic collection of campaign news coverage on local television stations ever gathered.

The Midwest News Index will be continually updated and also will feature a comprehensive, Web-based searchable archive of local TV news stories available to journalists, scholars, civic organizations and the public. A second report covering the final month of the campaign will be released in mid-November.

National and regional public opinion research consistently shows that local television news broadcasts are the leading source of information on government and politics. Local TV news ranks comfortably ahead of newspapers, radio and the Internet, according to the national Pew Center for the People and the Press. And a recent survey of public attitudes in the five Midwest states conducted by Belden, Russonello & Stewart, an independent research firm in Washington, D.C., and commissioned by the Joyce Foundation, found that 69 percent of voters in the region “regularly watch local broadcast news,” compared with 58 percent who read a daily or Sunday newspaper, 32 percent who use the Internet to get news and information and 30 percent who listen to talk radio.