AJR  Features :     FIRST PERSON    
From AJR,   March 2003

Local TV Eye-opener: Politics Aren’t Poison   

Stations discover that stories about real people draw audiences.

By Dave Iverson Tom Rosenstiel
Dave Iverson is director of Best Practices in Journalism.      Tom Rosenstiel is director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism.     

KTVU viewers in Oakland-San Francisco saw how class size at local schools might increase if the state couldn't resolve its budget crisis. WNBC viewers in New York followed a young woman's search for an affordable apartment and then heard what the mayoral candidates would do about housing issues.

On WYFF in Greenville, South Carolina, more viewers watched a special about political advertising than "Jeopardy."

An October 22 debate on WESH-Orlando between Gov. Jeb Bush and challenger Bill McBride was the No. 1 television program at 7 p.m.

All of these stations have two things in common usually thought to be mutually exclusive in local television: strong ratings and a commitment to covering politics.

Amid all the analysis of the recent election, the role of local television isn't adequately understood. There have been the predictable condemnations about how poorly local TV news performed--criticism that has more validity than we would like. But there was also evidence of the opposite phenomenon--stations that covered politics and prospered. They may be onto something that will benefit not only viewers but the industry, too.

The key is not that they covered politics. It is how they covered it.

Much of the thinking about political coverage on local television is based on recommendations by TV consultants, who help steer newsrooms toward stories and story approaches they believe audiences want. They generally base these recommendations on audience surveys, and herein lies the problem.

We obtained a copy of a standard survey from one of the nation's major consulting firms, and, consulting with other consultants, confirmed the questionnaire was typical. There were plenty of questions about whether audiences wanted specific types of consumer news--from where to shop to how to avoid getting ripped off--and plenty of questions to gauge interest in home and health topics--from parenting tips to pet care.

But the question about politics was: "How interested are you in news reports about issues and activities in government and politics?"

Polling professionals told us that generally the less specific the question, the less useful the answer. In this case, the question was so general it was meaningless. The question probed interest in "issues and activities in government," not real-life problems that government confronts. They might as well have asked, "Are you one of those political junkies who watches C-SPAN instead of 'Survivor'?"

But what if the politics questions were as specific as those about pet care? We decided to conduct an experiment and teamed with the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press to compare the consultants' question about politics with questions that framed the topic differently. The results were dramatic and revealing.

When it came to the consultants' mainstay ("How interested are you in news reports on issues and activities in state government and politics?"), only 29 percent of those surveyed said they'd be very interested in that.

But when people were asked if they'd be interested in "news reports about what government can do to reduce health care costs," the percentage of "very interested" jumped to 64 percent. And when participants were asked if they'd be interested in reports on what government can do to ensure that public places are safe from terrorism, the "very interested" percentage hit 67 percent. Pollsters measured similar interest levels for stories about improving local schools. All of these topics have everything to do with politics and government.

It might be tempting to suggest that people just say they're interested in schools, health care and security because they think it's the socially acceptable response. Yet people clearly felt no such compunction when responding to the generalized survey. Rather, the Pew data indicate that if you pose story options differently, if you focus on what matters in people's lives, there's every indication people would watch.

This doesn't just mean phrase survey questions differently. It means change the way you do political stories.

A recent study by Northwestern University's Media Management Center found similar results for print journalism. Above all else, readers preferred stories that were "intensely local, people-focused news," pieces about "ordinary people" and "community connectedness." Stories about crime, interestingly enough, ranked eighth.

The Northwestern and Pew findings show how journalists can make stories about public life more relevant and popular--by framing them in ways that matter to people, and then connecting the dots between the issues people wrestle with and how government can help.

In other words, journalists need to focus on people and their problems, not politicians and theirs.

A number of stations around the country, it turns out, did exactly that this election season, and they have audience numbers to be envied in an era of declining viewership.

Take KTVU in Oakland, California, one of the most successful stations in the country and one of the most serious. KTVU received a grant from the Best Practices in Journalism project to pursue innovative political reporting projects in 2002. The station's story about the impact of the state budget impasse on local schools succeeded because it adhered to basic storytelling principles:

• First and foremost it was a story about schools and class size, precisely the kind of topic the Pew survey indicates viewers want.
• Second, it personalized what was at stake. It wasn't an issue story as much as a human story.
• Third, the story linked the classroom and the state Capitol, but not as an inside politics "under the rotunda" report.

KTVU's 10 o'clock newscast is typically the most popular late-night newscast in the Bay Area and regularly features in-depth political reporting. On the night the schools piece aired, ratings started strong and held through the quarter hour the story ran. The station reports that it purposely promotes political stories on nights with strong audience lead-ins, from "American Idol" to the World Series, in order to grab viewers.

Similarly, WNBC's story about the young woman's apartment search was about an ordinary person first and politics second. As viewers followed the woman, they couldn't help but become engaged in a pursuit they'd all experienced. It was a political story and a feature--warm, funny and poignant. In the week that story aired, the station devoted an almost unthinkable 10 minutes a night on the 5 o'clock newscast to stories about problems New Yorkers face and what the mayoral candidates would do about them. A funny thing happened in the ratings: They went up.

The same phenomenon has been repeated across the country. Hearst-Argyle stations, for example, made a commitment to cover politics in the 30 days leading up to the election. At WXII in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, News Director Michelle Butt reports that her newscasts held or grew their audience during the time frame. Dan Weiser at Sacramento's KCRA says the political reporting didn't hurt the station's market lead. At WYFF in Greenville, where the news department produced an aggressive series of reports about political advertising, News Director Andy Still and reporter Brad Willis say they got more viewer response than for anything else they've ever done.

And the numbers? The hour-long ad special won its time slot, beating "Jeopardy Weekend" and "Everybody Loves Raymond." In Florida nearly 600,000 households statewide watched a debate produced by Orlando's WESH-TV between Jeb Bush and Bill McBride. Stations in Tampa, West Palm Beach, Miami, Jacksonville and Ft. Myers picked up the program, which won the time slot in three of those markets.

Did these stations hold their audiences because of the political reporting, or was it something else? Did the Bush-McBride debate fare well on its merits or for lack of competition?

As we all know, what causes ratings to swing is always impossible to precisely quantify. What we can say with some conviction is that there's no evidence that good political reporting will kill you--and every indication that it just might help.