The Disconnect between Politics and TV News

John DePetro this morning offered some justified props to WLNE-TV's Jim Hummel, who has steadily mined a rich vein of journalistic fodder in North Providence. I didn't see it, but Hummel described a report last night in which he revealed a town official's generous payout for unused vacation and sick time. Others are taking note of the Channel 6 reporter's hot streak; DePetro says Hummel will be the subject of a profile in this Sunday's ProJo. The talk-show host also wondered aloud why other TV reporters haven't shown the same level of interest in digging into North Prov.

It's a good question. There are probably several answers, but the love-hate relationship that local television news has with politics (in Rhode Island and elsewhere) is part of it.

Each of the three local network affiliates is capable of offering strong political coverage (Buddy Cianci's 2002 trial stands out as a case in point). To WJAR's credit, it is the only one of the three stations with a reporter in a dedicated political beat. As we know, there is no shortage of fascinating political stories in Rhode Island.

Unfortunately, the consultants who play an influential role in driving TV news, not to mention many broadcasters, tend to believe: political stories = ratings death. As a result, politics tends to get a loss less attention on the 6 and 11 o'clock news than, say, the weather.

As I wrote a few years ago, in a story about a proposal for free air time for political candidates:

"If we had five minutes of politics at six o’clock consistently for one year, our ratings would plummet and we’d go out of business," says a Providence TV reporter, who asked to not be identified. "A lot of people think this is boring. It wouldn’t take too long before they’re going to stop flipping on at six o’clock. People just aren’t that interested, and there’s no way we can make them interested."

It’s possible, though, that some consultants and broadcasters have drawn simplistic conclusions after quizzing viewers on a laundry list of topics. "When you say coverage of politics and government, look out," notes Jim Thistle, director of broadcast education at Boston University and a former TV executive. "[But] a lot of it depends on how you ask the question. If you say coverage of how the government is spending your money, you may get a higher response."

Hummel -- who, not coincidentally, has a regular segment entitled You Paid For It! -- is not alone among local TV reporters in knowing a good story when he finds it. Perhaps WLNE's traditional third-place ratings status gives him an opening to do things somewhat differently. One would hope that he serves as an instructive example. Given the broader trends in television, though, it's probably too much to hope that his enterprise work will usher in a higher degree of stronger local political coverage on TV. 

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