An Informed Vote? Local News Election Coverage from October 1, 1998 – November 2, 1998

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Introduction

From October 1 through November 2nd, both Channel 8 & Channel 13’s
six o’clock and eleven o’clock news were taped. Each day stories
concerning the elections and campaigns ads run were counted. We
documented the length of each story reported, categorized the various
races and ballot proposals, as well as, a comparative look at both
station’s general coverage. Lastly, we looked at what candidates,
spokespersons, and citizens were given airtime during the 6 & 11
newscasts over the month long period.*

The following study was conducted for the purposes of determining the
amount and quality of the election coverage on two TV news stations in
the greater Grand Rapids area with the highest viewing audiences. The
study, by way of documenting news coverage vs. campaign ads, wanted
to demonstrate how often one heard an “objective” view as opposed to
the limited views expressed in partisan ads.

Based upon the data gathered and an assessment of the content of
the news stories, it is this researchers general opinion that, if residents of
the greater Grand Rapids area were relying exclusively on the 6 & 11
newscasts from either Channel 8 or Channel 13 to form opinions about
who and what to vote for, they could not have made an informed
opinion for most races. Having said that I fully acknowledge that it is
not Channel 8 or 13’s sole responsibility to inform the public about
candidates and ballot proposals. Citizens need to take the initiative to
seek out information on upcoming elections on their own. At the same
time since more and more people rely on TV news for information, and
since both stations repeatedly communicated to the viewers that they
provide “complete election coverage”, I believe that a substantial
amount of responsibility of informing the public rests in their hands.

In the following pages you will read the data for yourself and are
encouraged to make your own conclusions, since this is the foundation
of the study. There are also some general observations made on
subsequent pages, and finally some recommendations for future election
coverage to consider.

* Note: Sunday, October 25 was the day to change the clocks. I failed to reset the timer for the video machines and thus was unable to record the 6 & 11 newscasts for that day and that day only.

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Data

Stories Channel 8 Channel 13
Governor Race: 13; 7 about both (4 are polls), 3 about debate, 1 Feiger, 2 Engler 20; 10 about both (6 are polls), 7 about Feiger, 1 about Engler, 1 about Republican concerns over Engler lead, 1 about radio address of both
Attorney General Race: 8; 7 about both, 1 about Smietanka ad, (3 are polls) 8; 7 about both, 1 about Smietanka, (2 are polls)
Proposal A 0 0
Proposal B 10; 1 on forum in Muskegon, 3 on Kevorkian’s position, 4 polls, 2 general 3; 2 polls: (1 on Kevorkian’s position, 1 on DeVos’s position)
Proposal C 3; (2 are polls) 0
Secretary of State 0 1; about Candice Miller’s big lead
Judges/Supreme Court/Appeals Court 0 0
State House Races 2; 1 on Kozak/Pestka race, 1 on Habetler/Van Woerkom race 5; 2 on the fact that over half of the reps will be first timers, 1 on Pestka/Kozak, 2 on Habetler campaign
U.S. House Races (2nd, 3rd and 4th Districts) 0 0
State Senate Race 0 0
Stories on County Commissioner Races (19 in Kent County) 0 0
University Boards Race 0 0
Board of Education Race 0 0
Voter Registration 2 5
Expected Voter Turnout 5; 2 on women’s vote 3; 1 on mainstream moms, 1 on African-American voter encouragement rally
Ad Critiques 3 2; 1 on ad spending, 1 poll on “Does last minute campaigning change your mind?”
Third Party Stories 0 0
Other 2; 1 piece on Republican bus tour in GR, 1 on GVSU students organizing on getting students to vote 3; 1 piece on City High candidate forum, 1 on last minute campaigning, 1 general poll
Total: 48 50
Campaign Ads (run during the 6 & 11 news only for October1 – November 2) 295; 36 Engler, 39 Feiger, 21 Smeitanka, 23 Granholm, 26 Yes Proposition C, 20 No Proposition B, 1 Yes Proposition B, 19 Habetler, 8 Judge Taylor, 21 Judge Corrigan, 18 Van Woerkom, 9 Miller, 1 Young, 12 Youngblod, 5 Smith, 8 Borman, 3 anti-Granholm, 6 Kozak, 5 anti-Smietanka, 9 Pestka, 2 Cavanagh 226; 26 Engler, 17 Feiger, 12 Smeitanka, 21 Granholm, 22 Judge Corrigan, 6 Judge Taylor, 16 Yes Proposition C, 20 No Proposition B, 6 Habetler, 7 anti-Granholm, 17 Van Woerkom, 6 Miller, 10 Shrauger, 7 Borman, 5 Hoekstra, 5 Pittman, 6 Kozak, 5 anti-Smietanka, 9 Pestka
Time Breakdown
Governor race (gen.) 6:30 5:25
Engler 3:12 :13
Feiger 3:10 4:07
Attorney General (both) 4:13 5:25
Federal Congressional 0:00 0:00
State Senate 0:00 0:00
State Representatives 4:29 5:23
Kozak/Pestka 2:16 1:49
Habetler/Van Woerkom 2:13 1:04
Secretary of State 0:00 0:00
State Supreme Court 0:00 0:00
County Commissioner 0:00 0:00
Proposal A 0:00 0:00
Proposal B 6:55 1:09
Proposal C 3:58 0:00
Senior Millage 0:00 0:00
Voter Turnout 8:40 3:26
Candidate Forums 0:00 2:00
Voter Registration 0:28 0:46
Ad Critiques 0:28 0:46
Voter Registration 10:25 1:48
Other 1:15 2:34
Total 57:19 37:43
People Interviewed/Quoted live (different times)
Engler 3 1
Feiger 3 2
Granholm 3 2
Smietanka 4 2
Habetler 1 1
Van Woerkom 8 0
Spence Abraham 1 0
Muskegon Mayor Nielson 1 0
Ken Sikkema 1 0
Chuck Yob 1 0
Pestka 1 0
Kozak 1 0
Jansen 0 1
Nancy Bedell (Prop. B supporter) 2 0
Van Regenmorter (Prop. B opponent 1 0
Hospital worker 1 0
Citizens on street 7 12
Students 3 3
Campaign workers 1 1
Dem. Party Attorney 1 0
Van Woerkom Attorney 1 0
Fergeson 0 1
Hennessey 0 1
Calvin Prof. 0 2
GVSU Prof. 0 1
Couty Clerk – Terri Land 2 0
Dick DeVos Jr. 0 1
Pollsters 0 2
Channel 13 National Sales person Tom Seigel 0 1
Total 46 34

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Observations

  • Over half of the races and ballot proposals were not even mentioned;
    US House 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Districts, State Senate, Supreme Court,
    Appeals Court, Board of Education, University Boards, Proposal A,
    County Board, local Courts, Senior millage, and Wyoming Public
    transportation millage.
  • Of the 12 State House races in the area only one was covered, the
    Pestka-Kozak race which both stations mentioned.
  • The Secretary of Sate race was mentioned once (Channel 13), and
    Proposal C 3 times (all Channel 8)
  • Of the numerous candidate forums conducted in the area during the
    month of study only one was covered (City High forum – by Channel
    13)
  • Many of the stories documented were repeated (often shorter)
    versions of what had been aired earlier in the day or the day before.
  • The only races/ballot proposals that were given significant coverage
    were for Governor (combined 33 stories), Attorney General
    (combined 16 stories), and Proposal B (combined 13 stories). There
    were a total of 99 stories in the period documented, therefore 62 of
    the 98 dealt with these three races/proposals alone.
  • Seven times between the two stations (Channel 13 &amp 5, Channel 8 &amp 2)
    viewers were reminded of the voter registration deadline.
  • Eight stories were devoted to expected viewer turnout (Channel 8 &amp 5, Channel 13 &amp 3).
  • No Third party or Independent candidates were ever mentioned.
  • The ad to story ratio was about 6-1 for Channel 8 and 4.5-1 for Channel 13.
  • Channel 8 (57min. 19sec.) gave nearly 20 minutes more of total
    coverage than did Channel 13(37min. 43sec.).
  • Channel 8 (46 times) had more actual comments from candidates/
    citizens than did Channel 13 (34 times), but Channel 13 had more
    views from citizens (Channel 13-12, Channel 8-7).
  • Channel 8’s Claim Check was one of the more useful segments during
    the month long study. It helped viewers critique some of the campaign
    ads.
  • Channel 13 on 2 occasions did viewer polls that created some viewer
    participation in expressing opinions.

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Recommendations

  • Any and all race/ballot proposals could be given at least some
    coverage, even if it is just a mention of who is running or what the
    proposal is.
  • Viewers could be given information about voter guides that have
    been published.
  • Produce video Voter Guides featuring all candidates in all races for
    multiple replays.
  • All candidate forums could be announced for several days prior to
    the event.
  • Candidate forums could be broadcast live or re-broadcast at a future
    time that would be announced.
  • Candidates who wanted to could engage in debates could be given
    free airtime for at a minimum 30 minutes per race.
  • 5% of the money made from campaign ads could be donated by the
    stations to an independent, non-partisan organization to fill the void
    left by the League of Women Voters or to help resurrect the League.
  • Financial funding of candidates should be reported on before and
    after all races. (How much and from what sources)
  • Don’t just tell us where candidates were, but what they were saying.
  • Explore in more detail reasons for low voter turnout.
  • Use station web sites for more detailed coverage.
  • Operate in the public interest, convenience, and necessity.

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