Democracy isn't newsworthy. At least not on local TV news. That's the unavoidable conclusion of a new University of Wisconsin study showing that a typical 30-minute evening newscast featured 36 seconds of election coverage in the month after the traditional Labor Day kickoff of the 2006 election campaign season.
What the five-state study further illustrates is that local TV news really isn't all that much about the news. Well over half of a typical "newscast" is actually devoted to advertising, sports and weather.
The results of this study are staggering and downright depressing. National and regional research show that most Americans get most of their news from local television news broadcasts. Yet those newscasts offer precious little news and treat the democratic process as a non-story. The UW study shows that what little election coverage is aired focuses largely on who is likely to win, not on providing information voters can use to make up their own minds.
While substantive coverage of elections by television broadcasters is almost non-existent, the same TV stations are reaping millions of dollars from paid political advertising, which in turn drives up the cost of running for office. Voters are exposed to an exponentially larger number of political ads than substantive political news stories.
The airwaves over which stations broadcast their programming are owned by the American people, not by the broadcasters as is often mistakenly assumed. The results of the UW study show that most broadcasters are retreating from their obligation to serve the public interest, including their responsibility to inform citizens so they can participate in the political process.