We want spinach

Oct 18, 2006 at 12:00 am

News Hits pretty much gave up watching local TV news long ago. With so much emphasis on mayhem and fluff, tuning in to the nightly broadcasts seemed increasingly pointless.

Turns out we weren’t missing much. Or, put another way, viewers who do rely on the nightly news programs from local stations are missing out on way too much political coverage.

That’s the lesson to be gleaned from a study just conducted by the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s NewsLab, which looked at the nightly news broadcasts of stations located in nine leading Midwestern markets, including Detroit.

On average, the study found, a 30-minute newscast devoted more than 10 minutes to advertising, and another seven minutes to a combination of sports and weather. Crime coverage got nearly two-and-a-half minutes of airtime. Teasers and station promos received more than a minute and 45 seconds.

The study began the day after Labor Day, traditionally the start of the political campaign season, and lasted for a month, concluding on Oct. 6. During this time, with a hotly contested gubernatorial race under way, and with the state’s economy in freefall as massive troubles in the auto industry persist, Detroiters were treated to an average of just 22 seconds of political coverage each night. (That compares to an average of 36 seconds in all the markets analyzed. Madison, Wis., stations led the way, averaging more than a minute of coverage, essentially tripling the amount of political coverage provided by Detroit stations.)

Larry Hansen, vice president of the Chicago-based nonprofit the Joyce Foundation, which funded the study, called the coverage “scandalous” during a teleconference with reporters last week.

As Hansen pointed out, broadcasters, which have virtually free access to publicly owned airwaves, have a special obligation to provide the kind of information that’s vital if voters are going to be able to make well-informed decisions involving the state’s future.

And what about the argument that these stations, driven as they are by ratings, are only giving viewers what they want? If there were high demand for political coverage, wouldn’t the market drive stations to provide it? News Hits asked that question during the teleconference.

“There are occasions when people should be given their spinach and strongly urged to eat it because it’s good for them,” Hansen said. If you don’t, he explained, the lack of public interest in matters political becomes a “self-fulfilling kind of situation.”

News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette. Contact the column at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]