Awash in ads in Roanoke

At WDBJ, welcome transparency and a commitment to coverage—but room for improvement, too

VIRGINIA — Much is always expected of those graced with favor.

And when you consider that Virginia television stations this year have been the beneficiaries of an unprecedented flood of political advertising dollars, the bar is set pretty high for broadcast outlets to put that money to good use.

Which begs the obvious question: What will stations do with that campaign largesse? How will they invest in their community, and how will they bolster news coverage?

And considering where that money came from, how much time, effort, and money are they investing now in covering the elections and in checking out the ads themselves?

Those concerns are especially apropos in the Roanoke-Lynchburg market, located in southwest Virginia. Though it’s only the 68th-largest broadcast area in the nation, the market has at times ranked at the top of the list in terms of the volume of political advertising on its airwaves. And the center of the TV ad war in Roanoke is the market leader, WDBJ (Channel 7).

Cheaper rates than those found in larger cities mean that the dollar figures behind all those ads in Roanoke can be lower, as The Washington Post’s handy ad tracker shows. Still, it’s hardly chump change. A top-notch article by Ralph Berrier Jr. for The Roanoke Times in late July put WDBJ’s take from political buyers at $3.1 million, out of a market-wide total of $6.5 million—a figure that had already exceeded all spending in the market from 2008.

And since then, the money has continued to roll in. A check of the Virginia Public Access Project website on Oct. 17 showed that outside groups had spent or committed $10.9 million in Roanoke through Election Day, with $4.6 million devoted to WDBJ alone. That doesn’t count what candidates are spending. According to VPAP, the station has booked more than $1 million in ad buys just from the conservative super PAC American Crossroads—nearly as much as that group has committed across all stations in the larger Hampton Roads market.

“It blew all expectations out of the water,” Jeff Marks, the general manager of WDBJ, said in a phone interview on Tuesday.

Marks declined to discuss exactly how much the station expects to net by the end of the campaign. But to its credit, WDBJ has generally been open and accessible in discussing its windfall, and in opening a window onto the process. In addition to that Roanoke Times article, Marks was featured in an informative Associated Press video in late September that outlined how a political ad makes its way on air, and another AP piece about the ad barrage in Roanoke. And in the spirit of transparency, the station has even done some good reporting on its own airwaves about how it’s benefiting from campaign cash.

Marks has also been ready to talk about how the station will use the surge in ad revenues. To The Roanoke Times, he said the “cushion” provided by campaign ads helped support equipment upgrades, plus the reopening of a local bureau and other staff additions. In our conversation, he pointed to added staff for the digital newsroom; an increase to six-figure levels in the station’s charitable donations to arts and human services groups; a boost in employee benefits; and investments in equipment, such as $65,000 for a touch screen device that will allow anchors to manipulate images.

As is common in the industry, WDBJ does screen third-party ads, which stations have the authority to refuse, before they go on air. The standard for that review is generally to catch egregious untruths, rather than run-of-the-mill distortions—but Marks said the station actually rejected two ads earlier this year, though none recently. He declined to identify the specific ads, though he said they had run on other stations.

More commonly, he said, the station will ask for more supporting documentation from political ad-buyers. “There have been a lot of ads that have skirted the line between unreality and reality,” he said.

And how about the on-air coverage—of the ads, and the rest of the campaign? Marks told me he’s proud of the station’s work, citing fact-check segments and a Sunday morning series of interviews with the candidates.

My own review found a more mixed picture. The quality of campaign coverage—collected on a robust election news page is abundant, suggesting the station takes its obligation to provide political information seriously. But the quality of that coverage is variable.

Those Sunday morning interviews are long and focused on substance, clocking in at a leisurely 20 minutes. “We decided to go long-form and the response has been good,” Marks told me.

It’s a laudable impulse, and one that gives viewers an opportunity to hear at length from the politicians vying to represent them. The problem is that viewers who tune in are too often only hearing from the politicians, with little pushback or follow-up. For example, early in anchor Jean Jadhon’s Oct. 14 interview with local Rep. Morgan Griffith (video; transcript), Jadhon more or less asked Griffith to expound on his attack against the Obama administration’s approach to coal. She’d have done better to press Griffith on some of his own rhetoric. (See this post for some thoughts on how to do that.)

The problem of too-easy interviewing shows up on other occasions too, like a brief sit-down a few weeks ago with GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan. WDBJ’s journalists don’t necessarily have to adopt the attack-dog interviewing method favored in Las Vegas, but a more skeptical approach would yield more value.

WDBJ does offer some good pushback—and welcome scrutiny of the advertisements that are filling its coffers—with periodic AdWatch segments, like this one from anchor Christ Hurst that explores claims in ads from American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS. In two minutes, Hurst tells viewers who’s behind the ads, offers a quick summation of the ads’ content, and shows what they get wrong. There’s some room for improvement in technique—the Annenberg Center’s offers a useful tutorial on video factchecking—and the segment could air more frequently, but this is good stuff.

The station also offers steady coverage from the campaign trail, featuring web livestreams from any visit for a presidential or vice presidential candidate in or near their area (and there’ve been a lot of visits), along with links to coverage from other outlets whenever a candidate visits Virginia.

For example, when Ryan was in Lynchburg for a rally on Oct. 16, WDBJ ran a regular event coverage spot for its newscasts, provided a streaming broadcast of the visit, and added video from Ryan’s tour of a local business to its online content. There was nothing fancy about any aspect of this coverage, but it’s definitely thorough, and it gets the job done.

The bottom line? There’s room for improvement, starting with a more adversarial approach at times. But it’s encouraging to see the station stretching its political coverage beyond event-driven newsreel reporting, and delivering news in a variety of ways: the ad fact-checks, the old school Sunday-morning sit-downs, the livestreams of major candidates, and yes, the transparency about the ad-buying process. It shows a commitment to journalism and solid community service—and a willingness to do more than rake in the cash.

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Tharon Giddens logged more than two decades in newspapers in Georgia and South Carolina as a writer and editor. He is now living on an alpaca farm east of Richmond, Virginia.