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All Politics is Local

Will Ferrell in Anchorman

Brian Calfano

Brian Calfano is a professor in the departments of communication and political science at the University of Cincinnati, as well as a political reporter and producer for Nexstar Broadcasting Group. He has authored two books, over 30 scholarly articles, and also serves as a policy advisor for the City of Los Angeles’s Human Rights Commission.

Local television news has the potential to play a key, local public information role in the 2016 election. I say potential because there are also great temptations for local TV news to succumb to coverage choices that do not effectively serve the local viewer.

In determining local news effectiveness, local television coverage cannot provide essentially the same product that cable and national news operations do. People tune in to local television for a local take on current events. As such, local television political coverage should shine a local lens on national events.

Choosing the local approach is not easy, however, because the national political news cycle’s timing and nature make following the cable news punditry model an attractive and relatively easy choice for local newsrooms. Indeed, having a local pundit pontificate about unfolding political events at the desk during a three-minute segment presents a myriad of quality control advantages for producers (even if the viewer is not ultimately served by the content).

For example, rather than try to localize a national political story by tying up a reporter for several days running down leads that may provide little in the way of useful content, producers can fill the same amount of airtime at a fraction of the cost by tapping the local pundit. At the same time, newsrooms can deflect criticism of unpopular views the pundit offers (rather than defend a reporter’s controversial package).

None of this is to say that the use of local pundits and political analysts is a bad thing in theory. In fact, as part of a balanced approach to local political news coverage, the local analyst can provide key insights. However, the analyst should not be allowed to morph into a cable news “talking head” just to fill time.

Clearly, the 2016 presidential race has taken on a new level of entertainment value that local television newsrooms are understandably eager to leverage for increased ratings. Unfortunately, most local newsrooms cannot mimic the cable news model as well as cable news can provide it, which leaves the local station looking like a poor imitation while alienating large audience segments that tuned in specifically because local news is supposed to be, well, local — including in its treatment of politics.

As Al Tompkins argues, five motivators are behind local news viewership: money, family, health, safety and community. Local stations are most successful when weaving one or more of these motivators into their coverage. I argue the same is true for a local station’s political coverage.

Admittedly, not every presidential political story can be localized to include one or more of the motivators, but reporters and producers should be on the lookout for ways in which they might. A way forward might be for local stations to make it a point to give the horse race between candidates very limited air time — thereby forcing a look at other angles for content. Moreover, designating a political producer — even as a part time role — to quarterback planning and coordination of political packages over a several week time frame, would help the local stations move away from quick reliance on horse race and pundit driven content. Local stations have become adept at coordinating elaborate packages for air during sweeps periods. A similar model could be used to shape political coverage with an eye to local motivators and away from cable-esque sensationalism.

Finally, focus on combining solutions journalism (which emphasizes discussion of possible strategies for addressing social and political problems — see Susan Benesch’s 1998 peice in the Columbia Journalism Review) might also be a good fit.  The goal is for local newsrooms to provide local coverage for viewers, even of presidential elections. By leaning away from the horse race and pivoting toward a solutions-based approach that draws on one or more of the main local motivators, local television news can claim its appropriate and vital public information niche.