COMMENTS: Network Newscasts Reinvent Election Coverage

Congratulations to the legacy journalists at the old-school broadcast television networks.

Their half-hour nightly newscasts broke from tradition in their coverage of the Presidential election campaign this year. They made a radical shift in favor of democracy. They scaled down their fixation with the activities of the candidates on the stump -- in particular stripping attention away from Donald Trump. And they ramped up their focus on the people in charge: the voters themselves.

As the threats to the integrity of the election mounted, the networks' attention shifted accordingly. Tyndall Report has monitored the nightly newscasts' coverage of each quadrennial election cycle since 1988. Never before in any of the previous eight elections has so much attention been paid to the threats to a free and fair vote, nor to the efforts to secure the vote against any disruption.

During the final two months of the run-up to Election Day, the weekday newscasts of the three broadcast networks (ABC, CBS and NBC combined) devoted more than three hours (186 minutes) to the conduct of the election. In the previous eight cycles, the three newscasts devoted only 148 minutes in total to such issues. Previously the networks' coverage had its eyes on the campaigns, not on the voters.

Here is a rundown of election-focused stories since the start of September. They focused on the warning signs: fears of continued foreign interference, led by Russia; cybersabotage of voting machines and databases; failure of on-time delivery of mail-in ballots; rejection of a legitimate result through allegations of fraud; and, overshadowing all, worries about the health and safety of voting during a pandemic.

But the coverage also emphasized possible remedies: the precautions of intelligence operatives and software security; preparations to handle the huge influx of absentee ballots; widespread early voting, registration drives and get-out-the-vote mobilization; and social distancing protocols at voting precincts.

NBC, with its Vote Watch series of features, spent more time on this type of election coverage than its two rivals (75 mins v ABC 54, CBS 57). But all three stepped up their efforts significantly. At the same time all three networks scaled back their coverage of the candidates and their campaigns.

Clearly, the towering impact of the coronavirus pandemic has transformed every facet of life during 2020. It would have been impossible for the news assignment agenda at the network nightly newscasts not to be transformed too. In the first ten months of 2020, the coronavirus alone -- not counting its knock-on effects on the economy, public schools and colleges, sports and entertainment, restaurants and transportation -- has occupied more than a quarter of the nightly newscasts' entire newshole (3,308 minutes out of 12K). Here is a rundown.

Campaign 2020, during the first ten months of the year, took an extreme cut in coverage. Over the last eight cycles, the Presidential campaign has attracted a three-network average of more than 40 hours of nightly news coverage (2,513 minutes, ranging from a high of 3,531 for Obama-McCain in '08 to a low of 1,772 for Clinton-Dole in '96). This year the cutbacks have been so severe, that the first ten months logged a three-network total of only 969 minutes -- a cutback of more than 60%.

The average coverage for the final two months' run-up has been 741 minutes; this year the total was a mere 359 and here is that rundown. All the more remarkable, then, that the networks found that room in their newshole to transfer their attention from the conduct of the campaigns to the conduct of the election itself.

The withdrawal of attention from Campaign 2020 has fallen most harshly on Donald Trump. What a transformation: four years ago, in 2016, the Trump Campaign broke records for the amount of airtime it attracted. Of the 16 nominees in the eight cycles in Tyndall Report's database, none came close to the 1,099 minutes of coverage of Trump '16 (three-network totals for the first ten months of each year). By contrast, an average nominee in a race with an open seat attracted less than half Trump's airtime (511 mins).

Having overcovered him so egregiously in 2016, perhaps the networks' campaign desks were overcompensating. Granted, incumbent Presidents running for reelection always attract less attention than their challengers or than candidates running when the office is open. An incumbent President does not usually have to compete in primaries so receives less airtime in springtime. Furthermore, much of the coverage that incumbents receive is in their capacity as President not as candidate: the Rose Garden necessitates less time on the stump.

Nevertheless, even compared with previous incumbents (Bush in '92, Clinton in '96, Bush in '04, Obama in '12), Trump's Campaign '20 has been given short shrift. In the first ten months of 2020, the Trump Campaign attracted a scant 112 minutes on the three nightly newscasts, compared with an average of 271 minutes for those other four incumbents running for reelection.

That's a decline from 1,099 minutes in 2016 to 112 minutes in 2020.

To a lesser extent than the cuts Trump suffered, two of the other three staples of campaign coverage have also been scaled back during this pandemic year. The two parties' nominating conventions -- obliged to be held virtually and delegate-free -- obviously made less news than usual. In an average campaign year since 1988, the two conventions attracted 234 minutes combined; this year their total was only 111.

Equally, the average campaign of a challenger to an incumbent seeking a second term (Clinton in '92, Dole in '96, Kerry in '04, Romney in '12) received 408 minutes of coverage in that year's first ten months. Joe Biden, social distancing with a facemask in his basement, logged just half that amount: 194 minutes.

On the other hand, one aspect of the campaign year has remained stubbornly true to form. The debates. Even though the second meeting was canceled when Trump refused to participate in an online format, the traditional fall highlights of a campaign season held the same headlines that they always have. In the previous eight cycles, the Presidential debates attracted an average of 103 minutes of coverage. Amid all this change, some things stay the same. This year their total was 101. That's within the margin of error, as the saying goes.

Now let's hope that the admirable job the networks have done to alert their viewers to the dangers of a free and fair election pays dividends. Here's to a small-d democratic outcome.


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