Local Coverage of the Vice Presidential Debate

The local media’s coverage of the Biden-Palin contained very little information about what the candidates said during the debate. Despite giving the debate prominent attention, the coverage focused on style over substance.

Last Thursday’s nationally televised debate between vice presidential candidates Joe Biden (Democrat) and Sarah Palin (Republican) received a significant amount of coverage on the major Grand Rapids news outlets. All three local TV stations made it their lead story and the Grand Rapids Press put the debate on the front page. As has been the trend, the coverage tended to focus more on style than substance.

WZZM 13 ran an ABC story that was 90 seconds long and edited in such a way as to provide sound bites of both candidates. The reporter began by saying that the debate was filled with “drama” and throughout the story said that candidates landed a few “punches.” The only issues that were mentioned were energy policy, the financial crisis, and the US war in Iraq, but the candidate comments were quite limited. Here is what both were quoted as saying on WZZM 13 about Iraq:

Biden: “John McCain has been dead wrong on the fundamental issues relating to the conduct of the war…”

Palin: “Your plan is a white flag of surrender in Iraq.”

The WXMI coverage was considerably better since they provided more time for candidate comments. Here is what the candidates said on the channel 17 run story:

Palin: “We can not afford to lose against Al Qaeda and the Shia extremists who are still there, still fighting us. But we are getting closer and closer to victory and it would be a travesty if we quit now in Iraq.”

Biden: “With all due respect to your plan, Barack Obama has offered a clear plan. Shift responsibilities to the Iraqis, over the next sixteen months draw down our combat troops, ironically the same plan that Maliki, the Prime Minister of Iraq, and George Bush are now negotiating……The fundamental difference is that we will end this war. For John McCain, there is no end in sight.”

Palin: “Your plan is a white flag of surrender and that is not what are troops need to hear today for sure and it’s not what our nation needs to be able to count on.”

WOOD TV 8’s coverage was similar that that of the other two stations with comments from both candidates on taxes and Iraq. However, none of the stations provided any analysis of the candidate comments, nor any verification of the claims made by either Biden or Palin.

The Los Angeles Times story that ran in the Grand Rapids Press didn’t do much better in terms of providing readers with much of what the candidates said during the debate. The article spent the first several paragraphs framing the debate as a contest and discussing whether or not candidates could “hold their own.” Here is an example of one of those paragraphs:

“So how surprising was it really that neither candidate devolved into a Jerry Springer screaming fit or fell into a state of catatonia? In fact, both were in rare form, giving what might have been their best campaign performances yet.”

The only issues that were mentioned in the entire story were the economy, Iraq. and Israel. However, in each case the issue was only mentioned–the only excerpted comment on an issue was from Palin who said, “I’m happy to know we both love Israel.” The Press did run a short Associated Press story that accompanied the main article that provided four candidate comments and four “fact checks” of those comments. The article did not provide a source for the analysis, but you can find a lengthy critique on the claims made by the vice presidential candidates on the non-partisan site Factcheck.org.

The Press ran a third story, one that was longer than the fact check piece, about reactions from viewers after the debate. Most of the comments focused on the “performance” of the candidates and no issues were mentioned. In fact, the article does not even give an indication of where or how these comments were solicited, since there is no mention of how the reporter talked to those cited.

WZZM 13 and WOOD TV 8 also sought reactions from viewers after the debate. WZZM13 went to the locations that both political parties held screenings of the debate, with comments from both sides believing their candidate “won” or “did well.” WOOD TV 8 had a small group of “undecided voters” watch the debate at their station and then aired the comments of four of the viewers. However, one has to wonder what the value is for the public to have news agencies get feedback from debate viewers, when they offer no substantive analysis of the debates in their coverage or ask relevant questions to those who took the time to watch the debate.