Study Finds TV Debate Coverage Lacking

Television viewers in 10 states were more likely to see debates between the candidates for governor than for the Senate and House in the 2002 general election, according to a review of debate coverage that found many voters had no chance to see the candidates.

The study being released Tuesday by the nonpartisan Committee for the Study of the American Electorate (search) examined TV coverage of general election debates in California, Florida, Indiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Washington.

Curtis Gans, the committee's director, said televised coverage of general election debates helps inform voters about statewide and congressional candidates. Partisan political ads become the main source of voter information without such coverage and is inadequate, Gans said.

The overall commitment of television stations to cover debates also is inadequate, Gans said, noting that at least eight in 10 stations did not cover them. Some stations that covered debates had a very small viewership compared with the overall population of the state, he said.

The report found that:

— Of a total of 50 governor's debates, 30 were televised. The number includes 19 debates in Minnesota, where voter interest was high in the three candidates vying to succeed Jesse Ventura.

— Of 17 Senate debates, eight were broadcast.

— Of 107 debates for the House of Representatives, only 36 were televised.

Bob Priddy, chairman of the board of the Radio and Television News Directors Association, said he would like more research on the subject. But he said televising every debate raises questions about logistics and news interest.

"If candidates hold three or four debates, then logistically it can cause problems," said Priddy, director of Missourinet, a statewide commercial radio network based in Jefferson City, Mo. "We have to ask, 'Is news being generated?' Stations may cover a debate but not televise it."