Local TV

Election Night 2012: All Politics Is Local

Some of the country’s best media outlets dig deep to help viewers better understand the candidates and the issues of Decision 2012 11/05/2012 12:01:00 AM Eastern

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As Superstorm Sandy showed us last week, TV stations in
America remain a prime, if not the prime, source of news
in times of crisis. The better stations also shine during election
season. A Pew Research Center study in late October
showed that 38% of U.S. adults regularly get their election
news in October from local TV—more than from the Internet
(36%) and network news (31%), while trailing only cable news (41%).

Whether it was covering hopefuls for the White
House or the local sheriff’s offices, here’s a quick trip
around the country to spotlight some stations that
did it best.

WCPO’s Citizen Inquisitors

Seasoned political reporters can be counted on to pose
savvy questions to candidates, but there’s something to
be said for letting viewers who are particularly affected
by policy matters ask questions directly of the politicians.
WCPO Cincinnati’s “Democracy 2012” initiative,
appearing in the final five minutes of the 6 p.m. news
from late September through Nov. 2, presented the political
candidates for anything from the Senate down to the
hyper-local races with video of viewers in their market
posing their gravest concerns. And these were no random
Area Man or Woman; they were carefully selected
people from a range of backgrounds—say, small business
owners, or a first-time homeowner—with pointed
questions on topics close to their hearts.

Armed with the video queries, WCPO’s reporters
then chased down the pols for their answers. “Some
are surprised by the depth of the questions they get
from regular people who are not traditional journalists,”
said Lane Michaelsen, WCPO news director.

The Scripps station got more than 25 local candidates
to address the viewer questions. Besides the
well-viewed 6 p.m. news, the answers appear on the
Web and on mobile.

“As a swing state, we give people as much coverage
as they need,” said Michaelsen, “to make the best
choice they can.”

Debate Fit for a KING

The first debate for governor of the state of Washington,
broadcast statewide Oct. 11, helped get
residents familiar with the major issues (even if candidates
Rob McKenna and Jay Inslee slipped into
canned-comment mode now and then). The second,
five days later, was held at KING Seattle headquarters,
with a panel comprising the Belo station’s political
reporter and a pair of veteran investigative reporters
firing questions toward the podiums. That one dug a
lot deeper, and touched on issues more pertinent to
the Seattle DMA.

The panelists also used some hard-hitting investigative
reports—such as one on corruption in the city’s
famed ferry system that won a DuPont award, and
another on welfare fraud that earned a Peabody—to
inform their questions. “It really challenged [the candidates]
on their thinking,” said Mark Ginther, executive
news director at KING.

The hour-long debate, which aired following
Obama-Romney II, gave Seattle voters a clearer idea
on some issues that did not get much, if any, airtime
in the previous statewide debate. As a result,
Seattle voters are going to the polls with a greater
understanding of what their gubernatorial hopefuls
are thinking on key issues—campaign ads notwithstanding.

Snackable Debates in
Michigan

While Michigan is a battleground state, the
political ads dominating the screen leading
up to Nov. 6 were more about the proposals
on the ballot across the state. The initiatives
touched on a range of hot-button issues,
ranging from health care to renewable energy,
and even a controversial bridge proposed for
the region.

As one might expect, the ads that pushed
either side of the various proposals hardly
told viewers the whole story.

“There’s a lot of confusion,” said Jam Sardar,
news director at Young Broadcasting’s
WLNS Lansing.

So Sardar and his crew produced a halfdozen
“mini-debates,” as the station called
them, focused on the ballot initiatives. The debaters
included elected officials, union leaders and other
public figures. They run four minutes long, fed into
on-air segments, and ran on the Web or on mobile.

As Obama-Romney, not to mention Biden-Ryan,
showed America, political debates have made something
of a comeback as a television spectacle.

“They tell the story and get the facts out in a way that
viewers find engaging and compelling,” said Sardar.

WLNS producers also cobbled together the six minidebates
for an hour-long primetime special Nov. 1.

Sardar and his newsroom colleagues hope WLNS’
snackable discourses offered some clarity amidst the
clutter dominating the airwaves in recent months.
“With as many ads as there are, it’s hard to watch
them and know who’s telling the truth,” he said.
“These offer a clear picture of what the ballot initiatives
are actually about.”

Noshing in New Hampshire

It’s actually a presidential hopeful’s dream come
true: an abundance of face time with a large group
of undecided voters. That was the strategy behind
New Hampshire station WMUR’s “Candidate Café.”
In advance of the state’s bellwether primary back in
January, eight of the then-GOP presidential hopefuls
took their turn breaking bread at an eatery with between
12 and 20 undecided voters in the state. The
residents, not the reporters, conducted the interviews.

“We let the voters ask the questions and really run
the show,” said Alisha McDevitt, news director at the
Hearst TV station. “They got to see the candidates in
a completely different light.”

For his part, Rick Perry flipped open his laptop
and narrated a slide show of family pictures, showing
a side of the blustery Texas governor some may not
have been familiar with.

Other aspects of the give-and-take were edgier, and
just as revealing. “As they sat around the table, some
voters got aggressive about the issues they felt passionate
about,” said McDevitt.

The eight Café packages flavored WMUR’s 6 p.m.
news, with an average of 60,000 viewers
watching, and were baked into a primetime
special.

WMUR also took the candidates out on a
mystery trip—driving them somewhere in
the DMA, and presumably separating them
from their talking points, for spontaneous
questions from people on the street for “Candidate
Road Trip” segments.

“There was really great interaction between
the candidates and the people,” said McDevitt.

Seeking Truth in Chicago

When WLS Chicago hosted a Congressional
debate in mid-October, one man was
working harder than the moderator or the
House hopefuls on the set. Chuck Goudie,
WLS’ veteran chief investigative reporter, was
vetting the candidates’ statements for veracity, along
with his producers, with a hard deadline rapidly approaching.

The debate ran until 9:30 p.m., and Goudie’s “Truth
Squad” segment, around 2½ minutes long, was going
in the 10 p.m. news. If the candidates were thinking
of floating a point-scoring, if factually suspect, whopper
during the debate, they had to think twice with
the Truth Squad putting their words to the test.

“The Truth Squad found both truth and some
stretching of the truth on both sides,” said Jennifer
Graves, WLS VP and news director. “Using public
records and past reports, they could verify, or knock
down, what the candidates were saying.”

In case viewers missed the ABC-owned station’s late
news, they could see Goudie the next morning on
WLS program Windy City Live sharing his findings.

WLS’ Truth Squad has vetted political ads in the
past, but Oct. 13 was the first time the gumshoe crew
set its gimlet eye on a debate. “We threw a lot of resources
into it,” said Graves.

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