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Election Focus 2004

Media Coverage of U.S. Elections Closely Monitored
Trying to determine if their coverage is fair and balanced

(Election Focus 2004, May 21, 2004)


Americans rely heavily on the mainstream media for information, especially during election campaigns. Consequently, the media organizations have considerable influence on how people think about the candidates and the issues. This raises an important question: Are the media presenting a fair and balanced picture? A number of nongovernmental organizations have been created to look into that question.

Some of these organizations closely monitor mainstream news coverage of the electoral campaigns and advertise their findings in an attempt to hold news executives to higher standards of coverage.

The organizations advocate standards of reporting that are democratic, truthful and issues-oriented. They emphasize the media's responsibility to educate voters about the democratic process, devote more air-time to diverse political perspectives, and provide more thorough coverage of the issues and candidates on the ballot.

Dr. Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and Director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center says "reporters should help the public make sense of competing political arguments by defining terms, filling in needed information, assessing the accuracy of the evidence being offered, and relating the claims and counterclaims to the probable impact of the proposed policies on citizens and the country."

According to the polling organization Pew Research Center for the People, 42 percent of Americans go to local TV news for their campaign coverage. Data from the Norman Lear Center, a multidisciplinary research and public policy center, reveal that the amount of election coverage provided by the typical local television station during the height of the 2000 presidential primary season was just 39 seconds a night, considerably shorter than the five-minute standard advocated by a 1998 presidential advisory commission led by former Vice President Al Gore.

And MediaTenor, a global provider of international media content analysis, reports that in January less than 5 percent of national television network reporting covered candidates' positions on issues that matter to Americans most.

According to the Center for Media and Public Affairs, a nonpartisan research and educational organization, the total minutes of coverage of the 2002 midterm election on the network news programs declined by 78 percent from the coverage those networks devoted to the 1998 midterm election. The less coverage the media dedicate to a political race, the more candidates must rely on buying media time to get their message across to voters.

"Pre-election news coverage of the candidates has in many cases all but disappeared," says Paul Taylor, chairman of the Alliance for Better Campaigns, an organization that advocates improved media coverage of campaigns. "What little candidate coverage remains," he says, "is devoted to incumbents, by a margin of nearly five to one, over challengers."

Currently each news organization has its own rules for election coverage. MediaChannel, a nonprofit, public interest web site dedicated to global media issues, and its affiliate advisers are now drafting universal standards in collaboration with selected news services. They are hoping that these standards will eventually be adopted by the industry as a whole.