We hope this does not turn into an annual event, but once again, broadcasters' campaign coverage is being criticized in a study that leaves a bad impression while leaving out reams of data that could paint a very different picture.
The University of Wisconsin's NewsLab, based in Madison and armed with money from a media-reforming foundation, has taken a look at stations in a small slice of the country and monitored their newscasts. But the study excludes major newscasts throughout the day. That made it easy to conclude that broadcasters aren't doing enough campaign coverage. Their solution: TV stations need to be regulated into submission.
Of course, had they been watching any number of Wisconsin TV stations two Fridays ago, they would not have been able to watch TV's top-rated show, Grey's Anatomy, because local ABC affiliates were airing an hour-long debate between candidates for governor. But this study, which gets lots of publicity in media-bashing circles, doesn't count debates.
Morning and midday newscasts? Not included. Weekend public-affairs shows? Nope. Sorry, it's not a perfect world, say the study's backers. A survey sampling the entire country rather than one focused on a particular region, where there may or may not be a lot of hotly contested races? Forget about it.
The omission of morning shows is particularly damning since a Ball State University study of Midwest viewers in 2004 found that more people were getting their news in the morning than in the evening.
Because the premise is as full of holes as an acupuncturists' convention, it would be preferable to ignore this study entirely. But that would be unwise.
A similarly flawed study last year was used by legislators as ammunition against the TV industry. That was clearly on the NewsLab agenda. A representative of the Joyce Foundation, which funded the study, excitedly noted that the report arrives just as the FCC is in the midst of reviewing media-ownership rules and the effect that big media has on serving the public interest.
The National Association of Broadcasters last week patched together evidence of many television endeavors in Midwest markets, where the study aimed its faulty flashlight. In fact, several of the debates and offers of free time to candidates were on stations in Madison itself. There were also examples of town halls, roundtables and public-affairs shows. Of course, as we've noted, they don't count.
We know there are some broadcasters that could do a lot more, but we also know that, in every political season, many TV stations deserve credit for serving the public, not abuse.
This study blurs the truth. It's the same sham it was last year.
What we wonder is why NewsLab, so intent on improving the quality of information, doesn't start by improving the quality of its methodology.