Tracking TV News — and the Challenges Involved


The team behind the Internet Archive’s searchable database of televised news and political advertisements. From Left to Right: Jeff Kaplan, Tracey Jaquith, Dan Schultz (on monitor), Roger Macdonald, Robin Chin, Nancy Watzman (on monitor), Carolyn Madeo, Trevor von Stein, Ralf Muehlen. Absent is team member Alexis Rossi. Photo by Noah Arroyo // Public Press

When the Public Press analyzed TV news data derived from the Internet Archive’s television database, three important factors influenced the conclusions:

  • Human limitations in rounding up a comprehensive list of search terms to capture the majority of election coverage.
  • The search engine’s sometimes over-general results. For example, the term “proposition a” also yielded segments that had to do with the word “proposition” or that had the letter “a” as a stand alone.
  • Errors found in the captioning provided by the TV stations.

The Internet Archive’s database of TV news makes closed captions searchable. The text, which is the responsibility of the station providing it, is at times inaccurate, incomplete and/or misspelled. The Archive’s Trevor von Stein said the closed-captioning process is “fairly antiquated and mistakes are common.”

Misspellings can make it impossible to locate certain news clips, even if the user searches with the correct term. Many news segments contain multiple search terms, meaning that each one would have to be spelled incorrectly for the clip to be missed by the search engine — but this does occur. For instance, “hotly contested” was transcribed as “hot lincoln” and Julie Christensen’s last name was frequently spelled “Christiansen.”

“Unfortunately, both local and national broadcasters put little attention into accurate closed captioning,” said Roger Macdonald, director of the TV Archive, an initiative of the Internet Archive.

“Broadcasters are required by the FCC to caption what they air, generally if it is longer than 10 minutes,” he added. “Hence, most ads, political or otherwise, fall outside those rules.”

Macdonald said captioning is inexpensive — “like $100 to create if there is no script.”

During the 2015 election cycle, reporters occasionally referred indirectly to certain measures without explicitly naming them. For example, though we searched with the keywords “housing bond” and “moratorium” to locate coverage of Propositions A and I, respectively, it is possible that we missed segments that used neither the proper term for a measure nor the common phrases associated with it.

When trying to locate TV news coverage for incumbents and well-known political figures, we recorded only spots in which the person was mentioned as a candidate. Ross Mirkarimi, the former sheriff who lost his re-election bid, and Mayor Ed Lee both were mentioned during the election cycle for reasons not directly related to their candidacies, and we omitted these segments from our analysis.

Despite these challenges, our findings quantified how the local election was covered. Not only was coverage scarce, with the majority of it occurring on the eve of the Nov. 3 vote, but it also was repetitive. For instance, while KNTV had an impressive amount of coverage about Proposition A, it relied almost completely on reruns of a three- to four-minute clip of reporter Sam Brock examining the measure.

SEARCH TERMS: proposition, prop, prop A-J, proposition A-J, measure, measure A-J, ballot measure, ballot race, vote, voters, election, November election, election day, November 3rd, district 3, mirkarimi, ed lee, mayor, mayoral race, aaron peskin, peskin, christensen, hennessy, sheriff, sheriffs, housing bond, housing crisis, rent control, moratorium, legacy business, bond, mission rock, 2020, spying, no on f, airbnb, evicted, 18-month, supervisor, city college board, community college board, board of supervisors, supervisor, re-election, parental leave, $310 million, waterfront, market-rate, longtime businesses, government transparency, lobbyist account- ability, city workers’ paid parental leave, parental leave, District Attorney George Gascón, District Attorney, George Gascón, City Attorney Dennis Herrera, City At- torney, Dennis Herrera, Treasurer José Cisneros, Trea- surer, José Cisneros, Alex Randolph, Wendy Aragon, Tom Temprano, Jason Zeng, Ed Lee, Lee, 1-2-3 Replace Ed Lee, Amy Farrah Weiss, Francisco Herrera, Stuart Schuffman, Reed Martin, Kent Graham, John Fitch, Daniel Kappler, Robert L. Jordan Jr., Karla Gottschalk

Airtime devoted to news shows per week: Aug. 25 to Nov. 3 KTVU: 55.75 hours KRON: 49.75 hours KGO: 42.5 hours KPIX: 34.5 hours KNTV: 33.5 hours Data source: Programming schedules, available on each station’s website. These counts include commercials that aired during shows.

Don't miss out on our newest articles, episodes and events!
Sign up for our newsletter