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Presidential race may be hot, but not local television news coverage, says UC Berkeley political science expert
01 Nov 2000

By Janet Gilmore, Media Relations

Berkeley - Prospective voters who turn on the local evening news to learn more about where Al Gore and George W. Bush stand on the issues may not find much help.

Few stations across California, and around the nation, are devoting more than about 35 seconds a night to coverage that includes candidates talking about why you should vote for them, according to Christine Trost, a University of California, Berkeley, political science instructor.

And, she added, most of the coverage focuses on strategy rather than substance. California's nightly newscasts tend to track polls and monitor the shifting maps of battleground states rather than focus on the presidential candidates' issue positions.

Trost is heading the California component of a nationwide effort to step up local television coverage of political races in the final weeks before the election, which is Tuesday (Nov. 7).

"Even though the outcome of this year's presidential race is expected to be the closest in decades," Trost said, "the three nightly network newscasts are devoting very little time to issue coverage, and California's local television stations are reflecting that trend as well."

The Alliance for Better Campaigns, a Washington, D.C.- based advocacy group, is heading a nationwide effort to improve coverage. The California campaign is directed by Trost and the Citizens' Research Foundation at UC Berkeley's Institute of Governmental Studies.

Trost and her colleague Robert Lim spent most of the summer contacting local television producers, calling political analysts and firing off letters to the executives who own those local companies. The results have been mixed.

Only 11 out of more than 75 television stations across the state have agreed to step up coverage and allow the candidates' voices to be heard. But Trost has found some success: At least one station in every major market in California has agreed to increase its coverage. Those stations include KPIX in the San Francisco Bay Area; KNBC, KCBS and KPXN in Los Angeles; KNSD in San Diego; and KCRA and KMAX in Sacramento.

Nationally, 95 stations, or seven percent of the nation's 1,300 local stations, have signed up for the effort. The complete list is available at

Trost and other members of the alliance are asking local television stations to follow the voluntary standards first proposed by a White House advisory commission in late 1998.

The commission recommended that, starting in 2000, television stations air five minutes of "candidate-centered discourse" each night at any time between 5 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. This was to occur during the 30 days before an election and could spotlight the presidential candidates; candidates for U.S. Congress; or candidates for state and local offices.

The five minutes could be broken up among various broadcasts that night, include mini-debates, or news reports that also feature reporter voice-overs and other coverage. The Alliance for Better Campaigns began monitoring national TV coverage during the 2000 presidential primary season and found that typical stations in selected major media markets aired no more than 39 seconds of candidates talking.

The alliance is now monitoring coverage of the general election. Results will be studied and tabulated in the weeks following the election.

However, preliminary studies of the local network affiliates in the nation's top five media markets show that on Oct. 9 and 10, the first two weeknights of the 30-day pre-election period, stations aired a nightly average of just 45 seconds of candidates talking.

According to Trost, several Bay Area stations also came up short: On Oct. 9 and 10, KRON-TV (CH. 4) averaged 21 seconds of candidates talking; KGO-TV (CH. 4) averaged 38 seconds.

Trost and other members of the national alliance remain concerned that a lack of local news coverage makes voters dependent upon 30-second political ads for information about candidates.

"At the same time that stations neglected their obligation to serve the public interest by providing viewers with substantive information on local, state and national elections," she said, "they enjoyed a windfall of profits from the sale of political ads."

Nationwide, broadcasters earned more than $114 million from the 151,267 political ads that aired between January 1 and April 30, according to research done for the alliance by Power Television, an ad monitoring service. California stations took in $49.1 million during that same period. Leading the country was KABC in Los Angeles, with $9 million. Number two was KNBC in Los Angeles, with more than $7.4 million.

The Alliance for Better Campaigns is a nationwide network of nonprofit organizations, former journalists and elected officials. Its honorary national co-chairs are former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford and former network anchor Walter Cronkite. Honorary co-chairs of the California campaign are former California Gov. Peter Wilson and California Sen. Barbara Boxer.


NOTE: For more information on the monitoring of California news coverage, contact Trost by email: