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An Incomplete Grade - Broadcasting & Cable

An Incomplete Grade

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Last week, a damning study of local TV news political coverage, paid for by critics of media consolidation, was paraded around Washington as though it were the final word on local TV stations' campaign coverage during last year's election season. It wasn't. It's a sham.

That study, from the Annenberg School of Communication's Lear Center, in concert with the University of Wisconsin at Madison (arguably the cradle of anti-consolidation sentiment), loudly concluded that only 8% of more than 4,333 station newscasts surveyed contained even one story about a local political race. But the study was so narrowly targeted that it missed the point.

The Lear Center looked only at newscasts that aired between 5 p.m. and 11:30 p.m., and not even all of those. Here's what was not counted at all: early-morning, mid-morning and noon newscasts, and those that air in the 4 p.m. timeslot. Indeed, the study captured only 10 hours of news per station per week, rather than the 30-plus hours many stations broadcast.

And get this. It studied only 44 stations in 11 cities. There are 210 television markets nationwide and 1,366 commercial stations.

It excluded fast-growing morning newscasts, which also happen to draw the younger demo—people headed to work, parents—that many stations were targeting with campaign information in an attempt to encourage more young people to vote. Generally, it excluded newscasts in timeslots that have the most time to tell stories.

“They were obviously trying to make a point,” says Radio-Television News Directors Association President Barbara Cochran, “and the results support the conclusion they wanted to make.” She labels the report incomplete and, in one market she spot-checked, inaccurate.

If the study remained merely an academic exercise, it wouldn't rise to the level of comment. But it was filed at the FCC as evidence in its ongoing study of broadcast localism and was used to beat up on broadcasters all over the nation.

We'll acknowledge that some stations don't do enough campaign coverage while making a boatload of money on campaign commercials. But many broadcasters offer impressive coverage, free airtime, debates and more. The entire industry was tarred last week by critics who let their agenda drive their conclusions.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) even used the study to introduce a bill forcing the FCC's hand on digital public-interest obligations and reducing broadcaster license terms, as though putting a leash on a bad dog. The study was invoked on the House floor by a legislator trying to expand the definition of indecency to include such coverage “lapses.” Common Cause and others brandished it as though it were a weapon against broadcasters' planned fight for DTV multicast must-carry rights in Congress. And FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein told broadcasters they should be “embarrassed.” Enough.

The red faces should be on the people passing this study off as gospel. That's like judging a book by less than half its cover.

Research should adhere to the same standards as good journalism: It should be fair, accurate and as complete as possible. This report is none of those things, but it obviously will satisfy knee-jerk critics of local TV news. This wasn't a study. It was a joke.

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