2007-11-14 / Media Watch


Lack of media coverage leads to voter apathy
Greg Pearson

We have written previously that the daily media is underserving the Richmond metro, and last week's county elections provided further evidence. In Chesterfield, only 23 percent of the registered voters bothered to vote on Nov. 6. It wasn't much different outside of the county in other local races.

It's particularly disappointing because county government and the local school system have such an impact on our daily lives - perhaps more than the federal or state governments. This year, there were more competitive races in Chesterfield, and this newspaper and the Village News in Chester did a much better job of informing the citizens. In spite of low turnouts by county residents at their events, the Chesterfield County Chamber of Commerce and the Chesterfield Business Council sponsored candidate debates, providing a valuable service to the community.

We wish we could say the same for the Richmond Times-Dispatch (RTD), local television and radio.

These are sad times for the daily paper (and almost all other daily papers) as the 800-pound gorilla is on a diet with smaller printed papers, fewer local reporters and less circulation (down 4.5 percent on weekdays and 2.6 percent on Sundays, as reported last week). The RTD seems to be chasing the television audience that's not likely to want the details where so often the news is found. Over the three days prior to the election, the RTD devoted fewer than 900 words to the election - one or two sentences on each candidate running for supervisor and sheriff in Chesterfield. A daily paper is supposed to inform the voters, not ignore them.

Television news continues to play to their base with a steady diet of crime, crime and more crime. Oh, and weather three times in 30 minutes. News directors apparently believe their audiences are not likely to vote so why bother. The day before the election, news leader channel 12 didn't run a local story on Chesterfield's races in its 6 p.m. newscast or at 11 p.m. The NBC affiliate didn't discriminate, taking a pass on Henrico and Hanover counties also. There was just too much crime and weather to report on - keeping up with the other television stations.

On election night with just one hour until the polls closed, WRIC relegated all local elections to third place in its 6 p.m. news priorities. First up was a story on stray cats, segueing into a story on rabies. Makes you wonder if the station's news consultant is a journalist.

Because the radio market is dominated by just three companies, thanks to the Federal Communications Commission, which lets major corporations feed at the public trough without much commitment to local news and public service, we try to forget the yesteryear of 25 years ago when WRVA actually reported what was going on. The other commercial stations have occasional readers, not reporters.

The job of the news media is to report on what is important. Lowest common denominator news won't educate the voters or encourage local government to function any better. But it does make the daily media more profitable when the readers, viewers and listeners are entertained more than they are informed.

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