Networks Adjust Election Coverage

Media critics say news programs have improved campaign reporting since '88

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

FROM living room TV sets across the country, Americans are getting a daily dosage of news information about the candidates, the issues, and the events of the presidential campaign of 1992.

But what are people really learning? Is TV news covering the substantive campaign issues?

Television news producers are scratching their heads for answers to these questions this year as they attempt to improve coverage and cope with a changing media marketplace. Besides being blamed for superficial coverage of the 1988 presidential campaign, the three major networks and CNN are making room for the likes of Arsenio Hall, Larry King, Phil Donahue, and others as candidates jump onto the TV talk-show bandwagon.

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Although television coverage of the presidential campaign thus far has improved in some ways over 1988, it is far from top quality journalism, say political analysts and media critics.

Of the three major national TV news networks - ABC, CBS, and NBC - Larry Sabato, professor of government at the University of Virginia says: "On the plus side, there is more issues coverage, more fact checking of political [advertisements], and less tendency to play along with the staged media events of the candidates. On the negative side, the orgy of horse-race coverage and polling has never been worse."

Critics blamed the TV news media for covering trivial staged events, such as when TV cameras filmed a Bush campaign event in a flag factory in 1988.

Also, TV sound bites - or uninterrupted quotes - from the candidates are getting shorter. For the 1968 presidential campaign, they were an average of 42.3 seconds and in 1988 that number shrank to 9.8 seconds, according to two Harvard University studies. During this year's primary campaign, the average TV sound bite was down to 7.3 seconds, according to the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington.

Critics say TV shortens candidates' messages to crisp, meaningless one-liners. In 1988, President Bush coined the famous phrase, "Read my lips. No new taxes." Another memorable one-liner was spoken by Walter Mondale in a 1984 primary debate against Gary Hart: "When I hear your new ideas, I'm reminded of that ad, `Where's the beef?'

This year, however, CBS has been trying to lengthen sound bites. The network announced a new policy requiring 30-second sound bites for politicians on its "Evening News" program. Although the rule has been scaled back to 20 seconds, the idea was to allow candidates more time to get their message across on TV.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, applauds the idea. But she says: "We've gotten into a silly discussion about the length of sound bites.... One ought to be worried about whether there is substance in the sound bites."

ABC has tried a different approach. Earlier this month, ABC's "World News Tonight" anchor Peter Jennings announced a news-show format that will beef up coverage of issues, minimize sound bites and photo opportunities, and tone down day-to-day campaign events.

"We're aware that a lot of you are turned off by the political process and that many of you put at least some of the blame on us for the way we cover political campaigns," Mr. Jennings told viewers. "So for the next several months we're going to try to make better sense of it all in several different ways."

The show will be broadcast from different locations and include more interviews with voters. Last week, Jennings anchored from Charlotte, N.C., for example. He will also appear in other key regions in the West and Midwest, including some "swing states," that could go either to Bush or Clinton in November.

ABC's strategy could mean viewers will see less of what's happening on the campaign trail, says Richard Noyes, election project director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington. "The danger is that this could become ABC trying to run the election and not allow the candidates to take a primary role of deciding what the campaign should be about," he says.

In fact, the way TV shortens candidates' messages was how the talk-show phenomenon first got started, says Mr. Sabato.

But critics disagree about the influence of the talk shows. That presidential candidates - including an incumbent president - appeared on these programs signals a fundamental change in political discourse.

"Imagine a presidential candidate having to go on Arsenio Hall to play the saxophone," Sabato says. "Journalism standards have declined, and political standards have declined."

Unsubstantiated rumor and gossip reaches TV and print with greater ease, says Sabato. The prime examples this year were reports of alleged extramarital affairs on the part of both Governor Clinton and President Bush, he says.

Nevertheless, the talk shows are helping voters get better acquainted with the candidates, say others. Also, voters are able to talk directly to candidates - either through questions from the audience or telephone call-ins.

"The voters are more interested in substantive issues and policy," says Thomas Patterson, professor of political science at the Maxwell School at Syracuse University in New York. "There are very few questions about strategy and positions in the race. Voters don't ask those questions."

According to Ms. Jamieson, TV news coverage of the presidential campaign this year has greatly improved over four years ago. Critiques of TV political advertisements have improved, the three networks are doing more issue-oriented reporting, and the quality of sound bites has also improved, she says.

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