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In the public interest, or someone’s

Most television station web sites carry rundowns of regional (as well as national) news, which regular include political and governmental news, as well as occasional reports the station itself has developed. But you won’t see many of those political or governmental stories actually make the airwaves.

Turn on the evening news and you’ll get a predictable blend of cop stories, traffic stories, fire stories, and occasional consumer scare stories. (Is it really news if it’s all this predictable?) Scarce are stories that help viewers act as more informed citizens in their community, or that tell viewers something important about their city and state they didn’t already know. It does happen, but not often on local television stations, in the Northwest or elsewhere. What you see in Portland, Seattle, Boise or Spokane is about the same in Albuquerque, Memphis or Minneapolis: Just change the locator names on the weather board.

The Portland Mercury snarkily suggests, “My own unofficial study of local news shows that the remaining 30 percent of the stories are drug scares, 30 percent are about meth users WHO COULD BE BREAKING INTO YOUR HOME RIGHT NOW!, 20 percent are about wayward mountain climbers, and 15 percent are about childcare workers WHO COULD BE MOLESTING YOUR CHILDREN RIGHT NOW!). By contrast, local stations raked in nearly $27 million in political advertising during 2004 . . .”

The Money In Politics Research Action Project has taken this beyond simple observation into statistical analysis, and beyond that into a challenge of renewing the broadcasting licenses of Portland’s commercial television stations. Some other Oregon parties, including Portland City Commissioner Erik Sten, have filed in support. That effort likely will die on arrival at the Federal Communications Commission, but that’s secondary. The main point they want to spread is the grounds for the challenge: That local TV stations haven’t been providing citizen-useful news coverage.

In a release, Janice Thompson of MiPRAP said, “Voters are not served by broadcast TV news programs that provide little or no coverage of political campaigns. This trend is in stark contrast to the dollars earned by TV stations on political advertising and is why we have filed a license renewal challenge with the FCC.”

Sten: “Voters rely on television to get a lot of their information and what they are getting is not adequate. Our community can do better.”

Political coverage was what they studied specifically (by taping all or nearly all news broadcasts), and the numbers jump out if you consider them closely.

The report tracked 2004 political coverage on regular news programs in each station in Portland, Chicago and Milwaukee. The amount of coverage was similar in all three, though lowest in Oregon: Just 4.9% of news air time concerned politics during the year covered – which was 2004, an exceptionally hot presidential election year.

Station Total hrs taped Politics time Politics % Stories
KATU 149.9 6h, 56m 4.6% 380
KOIN 110.4 5h, 24m 4.9 % 323
KPTV 119.7 7h, 10m 5.9% 400
KGW 140.8 5m, 59m 4.2% 347
Total 520.8 25h, 29m 4.9% 1,450
That still may not look so bad until you consider that of those 1,450 stories, 77.7% were not about local or regional politics at all – they were short recaps of the presidential race. And there were about 14 minutes of coverage of politics in other states. That means the four Portland stations all together aired about six hours and 15 minutes – all year long – about Oregon politics. The races for the Oregon legislature, in a year when control of the state Senate would change, were covered in a grand total of less than eight minutes market-wide – less than two minutes, all year, per station.

And what were those statistics again about the number of people who get most of their public affairs information – including about politics – from local television? What exactly are they learning?

The report does note that the stations did air some special programs on politics, mainly debates; KGW, it said, devoted more time to these than the other stations.

To reiterate: These Portland numbers should not be considered unusual for the industry. They were, for example, slightly worse but similar to numbers in the larger Chicago and Milwaukee markets. And a report released in February 2005 by the Lear Center/University of Wisconisin covering 11 markets – Seattle was one of these – had similar things to say. Its analysis of station news coverage of local politics by the four commercial Seattle stations suggested that such coverage accounted for between 1% and 9% (KIRO was the highest) of local news time.

Politics – by which we mean here, citizens actively governing themselves instead of degenerating into hapless consumers of the world around them – apparently just doesn’t cut it as sexy TV, at least according to the wizards who control those operations. (Modern corporations, including media corporations, “market to” consumers – providing information and encouraging citizens to think isn’t part of many corporate marketing plans.)

Will be interesting to see in the current Portland challenge who, outside of people and groups with a financial or other interest in one of the stations, stands up in their defense. And on what grounds.

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