Our study this year happened to coincide with the presidential campaign, and nearly two-thirds of our stations — 32 in all — were in states holding primaries during one of the two weeks in which we taped. This gave us an unusual opportunity to study how local TV covers presidential politics, especially when it comes to town.
The results were not inspiring. There was a fair amount of coverage. In total, 8% of stories concerned the presidential race, elevating politics to No. 2 two behind crime as the most popular topic this year.
But given that, the coverage demonstrated almost no initiative, imagination or enterprise. In all, 93% of those stories were about the horse race or tactics of the campaign, as opposed to what the candidates stood for, how their proposals might affect people locally, or how local people were working in the campaign or felt about the country. Earlier years of the study show that this kind of horse-race political coverage is associated with lower ratings.
The coverage was also of the most reactive kind. Ninety-five percent of the stories were either wire feeds or the station going to a staged campaign event — and remember, this is not some distant campaign but a primary happening in one's own community.
In short, few stations built stories around local people or their concerns. They defined the campaign as the candidates and their rhetoric.
We did see one wrinkle about ratings. When they went to these prearranged campaign events, those stations building ratings were much more likely to interview local voters at the scene (they did so in 21% of their stories) than those stations dropping in ratings (6%). The implication: politics about candidates is a turnoff. Politics as it affects local people is more interesting.