Political Ads Account for 2.5 Times More Air Time
Than Election Coverage on Local TV Newscasts

Milwaukee TV stations air more crime, slightly less election coverage than 5-state
average; Madison stations air more campaign coverage than crime stories

November 21, 2006

In the month leading up to the 2006 mid-term elections, local television news viewers got considerably more information about campaigns from paid political advertisements than from actual news coverage, a new University of Wisconsin analysis shows. Local newscasts in seven Midwest markets aired nearly four and a-half minutes of paid political ads during the typical 30-minute broadcast while dedicating an average of one minute and 43 seconds to election news coverage.

The new post-election analysis also shows that most of the actual news coverage of elections on early and late-evening broadcasts was devoted to campaign strategy and polling, which outpaced reporting on policy issues by a margin of over three to one (65 percent to 17 percent). These findings come amid studies consistently showing that voters look to local television newscasts as their primary source of information about elections.

The findings are from the second 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 Midwest News Index is funded by the Joyce Foundation of Chicago, a leading philanthropy in the area of political and government reform.

From October 7 to November 6, the UW NewsLab captured and coded the content of early- and late-evening newscasts on 28 ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC affiliates in seven markets in the five-state region. They include: Chicago, Detroit, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Cleveland, Columbus, Madison, and Milwaukee. The UW NewsLab also obtained and analyzed corresponding advertising data from TNS Media Intelligence/CMAG during this timeframe for the affiliates included in these markets.

The amount of election coverage increased considerably, just over a minute, from an initial set of findings presented by the MNI in October. From September 7 to October 6, local television stations devoted an average of 36 seconds to election coverage during the early- and late-evening newscasts captured in the study. The new findings show that 2,392 election stories aired in captured broadcasts on the stations in the seven markets while 8,995 political ads aired during the same timeframe.

The study also found:

  • The average length of a single story devoted primarily to elections was roughly 71 seconds. By contrast, a similar national study conducted by the UW NewsLab during the 2002 mid-term election found the average story ran 89 seconds.
  • 41 percent of the election stories were aired in the final week before Election Day.
  • There was a political ad “echo effect.” One in ten election stories mentioned, pictured or focused on a specific campaign ad.
  • Gubernatorial coverage consumed almost a third of the air time (29 percent) devoted to election stories overall.

Typical 30 Minute Broadcast Breakdown

Category Five State Avg. Milwaukee Madison
Total Advertising 9 min 46 sec 9 min 1 sec 10 min 21 sec
*Political Advertising 4 min 24 sec 2 min 52 sec 2 min 41 sec
*Avg. Number of Political Ads 8.81 5.73 5.37
 
Sports and weather 6 min 58 sec 6 min 48 sec 7 min 6 sec
Crime 2 min 20 sec 3 min 6 sec 1 min 8 sec
Other 2 min 13 sec 2 min 19 sec 2 min 6 sec
Local interest 1 min 54 sec 1 min 45 sec 2 min 42 sec
Teasers, bumpers, intros 1 min 51 sec 1 min 54 sec 1 min 39 sec
Election coverage 1 min 43 sec 1 min 41 sec 2 min 14 sec
Non-campaign gov’t news 1 min 2 sec 1 min 12 sec 51 sec
Business, economy 47 sec 45 sec 41 sec
Health 45 sec 38 sec 1 min 1 sec
Foreign policy 27 sec 40 sec 22 sec
Unintentional injury 14 sec 11 sec 8 sec
  • Between October 7 and November 6, the UW NewsLab found that 319 election-related stories aired in Milwaukee, while 378 election-related stories ran in Madison during the early- and late-evening newscasts captured in the study. These included stories that were primarily about campaigns and elections and stories that either tangentially included elections or that mentioned a candidate running for office
  • Within the timeframe, 894 paid political ads ran during Milwaukee newscasts captured in the study, while 736 ads ran in Madison.
  • In coverage of elections, 57% of stories in Milwaukee focused on strategy and horserace, while 23% of stories focused on issues. In Madison, 59% of stories focused on strategy and horserace, while 27% of stories focused on issues.
  • 40 percent of election stories both in Milwaukee and Madison were aired in the final week before Election Day.

“In the days leading up to the election, voters were far more likely to see political ads than election news stories,” Democracy Campaign director Mike McCabe said. “TV stations are feeding citizens the equivalent of a junk-food diet. Stations across the Great Lakes region have been doing next to nothing in the way of covering election campaigns, and it’s becoming increasingly clear why. They expect to be paid to air anything related to elections.”

Compared with the other eight TV markets included in the second round of monitoring, Madison was again a notable bright spot, McCabe said. Madison stations again devoted more time to election-related news stories than the five-state average, and for the first time devoted more time to election coverage than crime stories.

The Midwest News Index will continue to capture and analyze local news broadcasts in a total of nine Midwest markets through the summer of 2007. The figures in this release are based on seven of the nine markets, as advertising data was not available for the Springfield, Illinois and Lansing, Michigan media markets. With the election season concluded, future MNI reports will focus on the coverage of government and other civic news.

UW NewsLab’s 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 findings will be continually updated on the project Web site at www.mni.wisc.edu, which provides a comprehensive, Web-based searchable archive available to journalists, scholars, civic organizations and others.

MNI’s October analysis