Networks Adjust Election Coverage Media Critics Say News Programs Have Improved Campaign Reporting since '88

By Elizabeth Ross, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, September 25, 1992 | Go to article overview

Networks Adjust Election Coverage Media Critics Say News Programs Have Improved Campaign Reporting since '88


Elizabeth Ross, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


FROM living room TV sets across the country, Americans are getting a daily dosage of news information about the candidates, the issues, and the events of the presidential campaign of 1992.

But what are people really learning? Is TV news covering the substantive campaign issues?

Television news producers are scratching their heads for answers to these questions this year as they attempt to improve coverage and cope with a changing media marketplace. Besides being blamed for superficial coverage of the 1988 presidential campaign, the three major networks and CNN are making room for the likes of Arsenio Hall, Larry King, Phil Donahue, and others as candidates jump onto the TV talk-show bandwagon.

Although television coverage of the presidential campaign thus far has improved in some ways over 1988, it is far from top quality journalism, say political analysts and media critics.

Of the three major national TV news networks - ABC, CBS, and NBC - Larry Sabato, professor of government at the University of Virginia says: "On the plus side, there is more issues coverage, more fact checking of political {advertisements}, and less tendency to play along with the staged media events of the candidates. On the negative side, the orgy of horse-race coverage and polling has never been worse."

Critics blamed the TV news media for covering trivial staged events, such as when TV cameras filmed a Bush campaign event in a flag factory in 1988.

Also, TV sound bites - or uninterrupted quotes - from the candidates are getting shorter. For the 1968 presidential campaign, they were an average of 42.3 seconds and in 1988 that number shrank to 9.8 seconds, according to two Harvard University studies. During this year's primary campaign, the average TV sound bite was down to 7.3 seconds, according to the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington.

Critics say TV shortens candidates' messages to crisp, meaningless one-liners. In 1988, President Bush coined the famous phrase, "Read my lips. No new taxes." Another memorable one-liner was spoken by Walter Mondale in a 1984 primary debate against Gary Hart:"When I hear your new ideas, I'm reminded of that ad, `Where's the beef?'

This year, however, CBS has been trying to lengthen sound bites. The network announced a new policy requiring 30-second sound bites for politicians on its "Evening News" program. Although the rule has been scaled back to 20 seconds, the idea was to allow candidates more time to get their message across on TV.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, applauds the idea. But she says: "We've gotten into a silly discussion about the length of sound bites.... One ought to be worried about whether there is substance in the sound bites."

ABC has tried a different approach. …

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