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Beyond the Sound Bite:
Politics and Public Affairs for TV

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Political coverage increasingly challenging for broadcast journalists

By Taylor Elmore

Broadcast journalists covering political affairs face a host of obstacles: media-savvy candidates trained to elude pointed questioning, viewer apathy and ignorance, competition from more visual, “sexier” stories, and apolitical producers are all hurdles to getting political stories on the air.

“You are the good guys,” Marty Kaplan told a room of TV political reporters and producers at the luncheon introduction to the “Beyond the Sound Bite” seminar.  Kaplan, associate dean of USC’s Annenberg School for Communication, invoked Edward Morrow’s thoughts on entertainment and journalism to illustrate the challenges and importance of television political coverage.  “Before you do (political journalism) well, you have to convince markets to do it at all, “ said Kaplan.  “What’s the incentive?”

The answer, according to Kaplan, is quality.  Simply put, “consumers like stations with quality news; ratings go up,” he said.  Stations that air quality political stories are not penalized by viewers for doing a good job.  Kaplan likened political coverage in a local or state race to “reality television—where the viewers are able to determine the outcome."

Speaking from a panel that included KCRA Sacramento’s Dan Weiser and Wisconsin Public Television’s Kathy Bissen, Cody Howard of 6News in Lawrence, Kansas said: “I think it’s very, very important not to short the intelligence of your audience.” Howard spoke against the tendency by some news organizations to “dumb the product down and ignore some of the more complex issues for the sake of whatever is flashy or sexy or ... who happened to get shot that day.”

Howard’s family-owned company ranks among the most highly converged news organizations in the country, combining their print, broadcast and web news presence into a unified front.  According to Howard, all of 6News’ reporters know five months prior to an election who the local and state candidates are, and familiarize themselves with the issues so that “we’ll be able to get the stories that are going to be better than our competitors, are going to be more in-depth and are really going to matter.”

Dan Weiser, who previously ran the news department at WGAL-TV in Pennsylvania, said that, “corporate made a commitment on our behalf to doing substantial political coverage, [including] five minutes of substantial coverage between 5 p.m. and 11 o’clock starting thirty days before the election—every day.”

In 2004, it was decreed that those five minutes must consist of direct quotes from the candidates.  “Quite a challenge,” Weiser said. “But it forced us to start early.  My way of handling this as news director was to break it into little parts, and assign different reporters to different aspects of the race.” Reporters would not simply focus on issues, but would dig deeper into who the candidate was as a person.

In an election year, political coverage on public television faces its own set of challenges and opportunities, according to Kathy Bissen, Executive Producer of News and Public Affairs at Wisconsin Public Television.  “We have a staff of about eight people in news,” she said, “and they’re fully occupied every year, and then we add this on top of what they regularly do.” Since Wisconsin was a presidential battleground state last year, “we had to plan out how we were going to tackle this, because we didn’t have the staff to handle all the visits from the candidates, all the visits from the President. It’s kind of a big deal when the President comes.”

Bissen said that they covered the visits in partnership with commercial stations, packaging longer-form interviews and profiles for their own use in segments and stand-alone shows, as well as sharing shorter, two-minute versions for use by their commercial counterparts in Madison and elsewhere.  “They don’t consider us to be competitors,” Bissen said. “We can work together in a way that benefits both of us.”

Resources

A/VVideo of seminar introductions and panel

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