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Study: Political ad time trumps election coverage on the tube

November 21, 2006 By Dennis Chaptman

In the month leading up to the 2006 mid-term elections, local television news viewers got considerably more information about campaigns from paid political advertisements than from news coverage, a new University of Wisconsin–Madison study shows.

Local newscasts in seven Midwest markets aired 4 minutes, 24 seconds of paid political ads during the typical 30-minute broadcast while dedicating an average of 1 minute, 43 seconds to election news coverage.

The analysis also shows that most of the news coverage of elections on early and late-evening broadcasts was devoted to campaign strategy and polling, which outpaced reporting on policy issues by a margin of more than three to one (65 percent to 17 percent). These findings come amid studies consistently showing that voters look to local television newscasts as their primary source of information about elections.

The analysis was released today by the Midwest News Index (MNI), a project of UW–Madison’s NewsLab. The findings are part of an ongoing study examining the content and effect of local television news in Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin. The MNI is funded by the Joyce Foundation of Chicago, a leading philanthropy in the area of political and government reform.

From Oct. 7 to Nov. 6, NewsLab captured and coded the content of early- and late-evening newscasts on 28 ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC affiliates in seven markets in the five-state region. They include: Chicago, Detroit, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Cleveland, Columbus, Madison, and Milwaukee. During this four-week period, the UW NewsLab system captured 99.3 percent of targeted broadcasts, a notably high rate. The UW NewsLab also obtained and analyzed corresponding advertising data from TNS Media Intelligence/CMAG during this timeframe for the affiliates included in these markets.

The amount of election coverage increased considerably, just over a minute, from an initial set of findings presented by the MNI in October. From Sept. 7 to Oct. 6, local television stations devoted an average of 36 seconds to election coverage during the early- and late-evening newscasts captured in the study. The new findings show that 2,392 election stories aired in captured broadcasts on the stations in the seven markets while 8,995 political ads aired during the same period.

The study also found:

  • The average length of a single story devoted primarily to elections was roughly 76 seconds. By contrast, a similar national study conducted by NewsLab during the 2002 mid-term election found the average story ran 89 seconds.
  • 41 percent of the election stories were aired in the final week before Election Day..
  • There was a political ad “echo effect:” More than one in 10 election stories mentioned, pictured, or focused on a specific campaign ad..
  • Gubernatorial coverage consumed 26 percent of the airtime devoted to election stories overall.

The Midwest News Index will continue to capture and analyze local news broadcasts in a total of nine Midwest markets through summer 2007. The figures in this release are based on seven of the nine markets, as advertising data was not available for the Springfield, Ill. and Lansing, Mich. media markets. With the election season concluded, future MNI reports will focus on coverage of government and other civic news.

NewsLab is directed by UW–Madison political science professor Ken Goldstein. The state-of-the-art facility has the infrastructure, technical skill and supervisory capability to capture, clip, code, analyze and archive any media in any market – domestic or international – in real time. The Wisconsin NewsLab archives include data collected in the 2002 and 2004 national elections, and are the most comprehensive and systematic collection of campaign news coverage on local television stations ever gathered.

“The data gathered by the UW NewsLab represent a comprehensive look at the highest rated early evening and late evening television news broadcasts in major Midwest markets. The MNI 2006 study builds on studies conducted in 2002 and 2004 and provides a strong evidentiary base for assessing the sorts of information that voters receive from a crucial source of news over the course of the campaign,” Goldstein says.

“Scholars, reformers, policy makers, and broadcasters may hold different opinions on the responsibilities of broadcasters and the relative effect of different sorts of campaign communications, but the data here are unambiguous – local television news provides less news on politics than many other topics and the coverage is overwhelmingly characterized by stories on strategy, horse race, and the game of politics. Any intelligent debate needs to begin from that starting point,” he adds.

Following is a chart illustrating a breakdown of the typical 30-minute local news broadcast in the seven markets in which news coverage and political advertising were analyzed by NewsLab. Times reflect averages based on total broadcasts captured and coded.

The following is a typical 30-minute broadcast breakdown:

– Total advertising: 9 min., 46 sec.

– Political advertising: 4 min., 24 sec.

– Average number of political ads: 8.81

– Sports and weather: 6 min., 58 sec.

– Crime: 2 min., 20 sec.

– Other: 2 min., 13 sec.

– Local interest: 1 min., 54 sec.

– Teasers, bumpers, intros: 1 min., 51 sec.

– Election coverage: 1 min., 43 sec.

– Non-campaign government news: 1 min., 2 sec.

– Business and economy: 47 seconds

– Health: 45 seconds

– Foreign policy: 27 sec.

– Unintentional injury: 14 sec.

NOTE: Individual reports on each of the seven markets providing additional detail for each of the five states are attached and available at and

The Midwest News Index findings will be continually updated on the project Web site at, which provides a comprehensive, Web-based searchable archive available to journalists, scholars, civic organizations and others.