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Dr. Yanich's Media Research is Getting National Attention

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Rieder: Political ads overwhelm news on local TV

 

Rem Rieder, USA TODAY 2:54 a.m. EDT March 19, 2015

The numbers are simply staggering.

During the final two months of last year's election, television viewers in the tri-state Philadelphia area were barraged during news broadcasts with four times as much political advertising as actual news about the campaign.

And when the story roster is stripped down to those about issues as opposed to who's ahead or what the candidates were doing today, the stat is truly chilling. For every minute of issue coverage, the audience was treated to 45 minutes of paid propaganda.

While Philly is a very distinctive place, there's no reason to think this is a local phenomenon, an aberration. Experts say there's little doubt the situation is the same throughout the country, and will be so in 2016, particularly in battleground states.

This is seriously bad news for democracy.

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People sign in before casting their vote on Nov. 6, 2012, at a polling location inside the Benjamin Franklin Elementary School in Northeast Philadelphia where a Barack Obama mural painted on a wall behind two voting booths was ordered covered up by a Philadelphia court. (Photo: Joseph Kaczmarek, AP)

The profoundly discouraging numbers come from an ambitious study released early Thursday called Philly Political Media Watch, a joint venture of four organizations. They include the San Francisco-based Internet Archive; the Washington, D.C.-based Sunlight Foundation; the Committee of Seventy, a Philadelphia-based civic group; and the Center for Community Research & Service in the School of Public Policy & Administration at the University of Delaware.

Candidates and other outfits such as PACs spent a whopping $14.4 million to buy 12,000 commercials on six Philly stations in those two months. That sum is even more impressive in that the region, which includes parts of Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware, didn't have a whole lot of competitive races. Some 8,000 of those ads aired during newscasts.

"There's no way for a citizen to make his way through the bombardment and onslaught (of political ads) and make an informed decision," says the study's author, Danilo Yanich, a professor at the University of Delaware.

Political Ads & Local TV News by Danilo Yanich

That's particularly true when the stations do so little enterprise work analyzing the candidates' positions and the content of those lucrative commercials.

Television stations have been major beneficiaries of the wild-spending days of the Citizens United era. All the more reason for them to dedicate airtime and resources to helping their audiences cut through the clutter.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, finds the performance of the television stations "pathetic." She says the combination of so much advertising on newscasts and so little analysis is a double whammy for the electorate.

Having the ads juxtaposed with the news gives them a "halo effect," she says being in close proximity to news gives the propaganda heightened credibility and causes confusion.

"People divorce the source and the message, and remember (the ads) as news," she says. That's even more the case when the ads aren't "contextualized" with real reporting.

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Kathleen Hall Jamieson is the Elizabeth Ware Packard Professor of Communication at the Annenberg School for Communication and Walter and Leonore Annenberg Director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Photo by Kyle Cassidy, University of Pennsylvania. (Photo: Kyle Cassidy, University of Pennsylvania)

The result, she says, can be viewers who emerge from their local news-watching experience more "misinformed" than "well-informed."

And she hardly thinks this is an only-in-Philadelphia thing, like the Mummers Parade and the Rocky statue.

"The findings are consistent with earlier work," she says. "There's no reason to think this is any worse" than elsewhere.

TV stations, of course, are not the only game in town. Newspapers and websites also cover elections. But local TV tends to have a big impact. That's the reason it's so popular with the free-spending ad-buyers.

And regardless, Yanich says, the fact that material might be available elsewhere hardly absolves the TV outlets of their responsibility to step up, particularly when they are the ones raking in all that electoral cash. So true.

The report takes a dim view of the ramifications of the picture it has painted.

"The short answer is that political reality is bought," it says. "Political ads spout their versions of the truth and, with all that money, the sponsors make their claims over and over again. The repetition works."

All the more reason that it's incumbent on TV stations and their media colleagues to aggressively fact-check the candidates and their ads.

See the original article at USA Today.

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Research is finding that TV viewers in the tri-state area were shown 4x more political advertisements than actual news about the candidates themselves - which has serious implications for having an informed voter population.
3/19/2015
 
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