A new study of Honolulu television news coverage of the 2012 general election finds that local TV stations didn’t do a very good job of covering last year’s most important political campaigns.

In fact, the University of Delaware study concludes, TV news stations let the candidates and campaigns set the agenda for political coverage, failing to explore even the most basic campaign issues unless they were raised at a debate or in a press release first. And then the coverage was only about what the candidates said.

“In reality, issue coverage was nearly non-existent on local television news,” according to the university’s study, called the “Local TV News Media Project.”

“Stories were often prompted by campaign events … and were frequently framed by strategic or conflict narratives that increased the entertaining qualities of the campaign. Absent from political coverage were informed treatment of candidate issues, critical evaluations of past performance or substantive commentary on the issues presented in political advertisements.”

The researchers analyzed nine weeks of Honolulu news broadcasts leading up to the Nov. 6 general election. The broadcasts included 584 campaign ads — sponsored by candidates as well as independent political committees — and 139 political news stories.

“The most striking feature of local television news coverage of the issues raised in the political ads was that 62 percent of the political news stories did not mention one issue in the campaign,” the study found. “They did not cover any issue. They covered the campaign, but did so in a cursory fashion.”

I have to say that I feel a little bit like the pot calling the kettle black here. The 68-page study specifically spanks the three local TV stations — Hawaii News Now, KHON and KITV. It doesn’t examine print or online news reports of the 2012 campaigns.

But reading the study made me cringe a bit when I thought back to our own coverage last year. We wrote those same stories as the TV news. I’d like to think we went further, with deeper dives into the issues and the arguments, certainly we fact-checked statements made by candidates and ads in the Senate and mayoral races and extensively covered Pacific Resource Partnership’s involvement in the Honolulu mayor’s race.

Now, with the first of the 2014 campaign ads already on the airwaves — the League of Conservation Voters has a new spot supporting Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz — it seems like a good time to resolve to do better this coming year. This study has lessons for all of us in the media.

Danilo Yanich and Paul Ruiz of the university’s Center for Community Research and Service chose to study Honolulu largely because they are interested in the consolidation of TV markets, specifically the growing number of shared-services agreements that come about when media companies buy up TV stations in the same market. That happened in Honolulu in 2009 when Raycom Media and MCG Capital Corp. entered into a shared-services agreement and combined KGMB, KHNL and KFVE under the Hawaii News Now operation. Four independent news broadcasts consolidated to three.

Even so, as of May 2013, the study says, KHON remains the highest rated newscast, followed by Hawaii News Now’s combined share (predominantly KGMB), with KITV trailing in the ratings. (KITV is Civil Beat’s media partner.)

Nationally, local television stations — not the networks — rake in the money from political ads. The adage that all politics is local applies to campaign spots that are directed at local voters particularly in presidential and congressional races, especially in swing states.

“A simple and under-advertised fact in American politics is that local television station owners bring in the lion’s share of political ad revenues,” Yanich and Ruiz noted in the study, adding that the money from political advertising is a major factor driving market consolidation.

It’s also another reason, they suggest, that local TV news directors are reluctant to bite the hands that feed them. “These are the people who are paying for the news,” Yanich said in an interview. “The political reality is now in the hands of the ad makers and that should not be the case.”

Nationwide, local TV stations got $2.9 billion of the $3.1 billion spent on political ads in the 2012 cycle, according to a separate study by Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

In Honolulu, the local TV stations took in more than $13.8 million in the few months leading up to the Nov. 6 general election, according to Civil Beat‘s tracking of political ad spending in our series, The Public File. (Full disclosure: Yanich contacted Civil Beat last year and made arrangements to download the public ad-buy files for use in this study. The authors acknowledge Civil Beat’s cooperation but also say the information was not complete enough for them to use it.)

The University of Delaware study found that all three Honolulu local news entities actually increased the lengths of their broadcasts during political season as a way to accommodate more political advertising. Hawaii News Now’s stations bumped up their newscasts by nearly 5 minutes a night, while KHON and KITV increased theirs by nearly 2 minutes each.

“In that way, they could literally manufacture revenue as the extended period allowed for more political ad time to be sold,” the study says.

When it comes to political advertising aimed at voters, it’s money well spent. The Pew research also found that 71 percent of Americans watch a news program, either network or cable. And local TV news viewing surpasses network TV news viewing.

Nationally, in 2008, more than 50 percent of all political ads were broadcast during local news.

Yanich and Ruiz contend that local news viewers want to know about what affects them, so when TV news falls short on explaining issues — and lets the candidates and campaigns steer the discussion — partisan gridlock and a lack of interest in democracy are obvious results.

Going Negative

In my newsroom and elsewhere, we talked about all those negative ads this last year, convinced that campaigns had taken a turn to the dark side. What we didn’t really understand — but what the study seeks to articulate — is the reasoning behind the dearth of serious public policy discussion and the effect that has on the democratic process. When the news media — including and especially TV news — fails to set the record straight as the ads play on, the voters are shortchanged.

“Voters watched a campaign that was more negative in tone and highly opponent-focused,” the study says, and issue-based attack ads set the agenda.

The race for Congressional District 2 between Colleen Hanabusa and challenger Charles Djou went largely unremarked upon in the study. Both campaigns ran positive, issue-based ads. Hanabusa’s played up her experience and Djou’s his military service.

The study analyzes in much more detail the tone and focus of ads the two most high-profile campaigns of 2012.

In the U.S. Senate race — Mazie Hirono vs. Linda Lingle — the narrative spun by the political ads became Lingle’s association with presidential contender Mitt Romney and thus her inability to represent a strongly Democratic Hawaii.

In the Honolulu mayor’s race — Kirk Caldwell vs. Ben Cayetano — attacks on Cayetano put the emphasis on ethics, even more so than on the Honolulu rail project, the study found.

“In the Senate campaign, Hirono’s candidate committee, Friends of Mazie Hirono, presented a disproportionately large number of negative ads compared to positive ads,” according to the study.

Lingle’s campaign was more evenly split between positive and negative ads. In fact, 19 percent of the ads were directed against Lingle by Hirono or independent groups supporting her. “No other candidate received that degree of negative attention,” the authors found.

Hirono tended to emphasize her image and didn’t dwell on issues. Lingle emphasized issues in about two-thirds of her ads and her image in about a third of the spots.

And — hardly surprising to those of us who followed the campaigns — there were many more pro-Caldwell/anti-Cayetano ads than the other way around. The negative campaigning, on both sides, ramped up in the last weeks of the campaign. Caldwell and his supporters attacked Cayetano and promoted Caldwell at the same time, while Cayetano initially put out only positive images of himself. That changed in the final weeks, the study found, when Cayetano fought back against Caldwell and PRP’s ads attacking his character and integrity.

But local TV news did little to explore the realities behind the political ad wars, the study says.

While 584 political ads appeared on nightly newscasts during the nine-week study period, local news aired only 139 political stories. KITV did the fewest and Hawaii News Now the most, the study found.

“The most revealing finding regarding political ads and political news stories was the obvious disconnect between the two vehicles for political communication,” the authors wrote. “In short, almost two-thirds of political news stories presented on the stations in Honolulu never mentioned an issue that was raised in the political ads that they presented on their air during their newscasts.”

When news stories did mention an issue — the economy, for instance — it was usually in the context of a campaign forum or statements made by candidates at a campaign event. Stories on unemployment, for example, ran on all three stations on the same night but they only showed the candidates talking about the falling unemployment rate without a separate report on the issue. There was little or no substantive coverage of military issues, including defense spending, in a state where many people are enlisted, employed or dependent upon the U.S. military, the study found.

But perhaps the TV stations’ biggest misstep involved its failure to critically examine the political ads that were so prevalent during their nightly newscasts.

The authors found no evidence that local news programs fact-checked a single political ad. In Honolulu, four stories — a total of 8 minutes and 18 seconds of coverage — aired about political ads. Two were about Sen. Dan Inouye calling for Lingle to stop airing misleading ads. Two were about negative campaigning.

“News producers have a public interest obligation in return for the spectrum that they use,” Yanich and Ruiz write. “As such, we would argue that citizens are entitled to more than a just-the-facts recounting of televised debates, or play-by-play narratives of campaign events.”

Yanich says the next step for the Delaware researchers is to expand this study to other markets, especially to battleground states where the stakes for political campaigns are much higher. But he believes the same problems exist throughout the country, Honolulu is no worse.

The takeaway, from the conclusion of the report:

Tremendous issue saturation requires that citizens have accurate and credible journalism to rebut false characterizations and misleading negative attack ads. Most of these ads appear during the very local news programs that citizens rely on for information about the campaigns. Stations welcome political advertising revenues and the major media conglomerates depend on them to fulfill their fiduciary responsibilities to shareholders. But that is a double-edge sword.

Political ads are lucrative and the intense pace of local consolidation is a direct result of that fact. The owners say so. Given that condition, to what extent would we expect local stations to question the information on political ads whose revenue they use to pay their bills? If the experience in Hawaii is any indication, political ad claims are simply not questioned by the stations that air them. The sword is only sharp on one edge.

Read the full report here.

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