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By: Danilo Yanich
Was the 2016 election really unlike any we had ever seen? The answer is yes and no. From the standpoint of political ads, it was true for the Presidential race. The losing candidate accounted for 75 percent of those ads as part of her total spending of over $1B. But, the winning candidate had Twitter on his side and a media system that gave him $5B in free coveragecalled earned media. That imbalance had never happened before.
In the campaigns leading up to this year, political ad money increased dramatically and there was an expectation that 2016 would see $6 billion in political advertising on local television. Instead, political ad spending remained around the level of the 2012 campaign, but the amount was significant$9.8B in total political ad spending with $4.4B going to local television stations. Most of the local buy was directed at down ballot races.
While much attention is directed toward the Presidential race, the more significant political ad spending effect occurs in Congressional election spendingfrom $2.5 billion in 2006 to $3.8 billion in 2014. Of the 4.2 million ads that aired in the 20152016 election cycle, only 1 million were for the Presidential race. The remaining 3.2 million ads addressed down ballot (Senate, House, Governor, etc.) races (Fowler, et. al., 2016). Further, the 2016 campaign has laid bare the lack of trust that the public has in the media, especially in the breakdown of the newsroom-community connection (Glaisyer, 2016). And, in this era of fake news in which all journalism is rendered suspect, citizens are increasingly left to their own devices to sort out fact from fiction.
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But, why should we examine local news? First, we know that the most civically engaged citizens have strong ties to local news sources and local TV news is their most prominent source (Pew, 2016). And, even in this era of social media and the Internet, local TV news is still a significant source of political information for the public (Pew Research Center, 2016). Further, when it comes to local issues, local TV consistently has larger audiences than their cable counterparts in head-to-head competition. For example, KUTV in Salt Lake City had an 8 share (in a market of 800,000 households) while the typical cable news show has an audience share of between one (for Anderson Cooper) and three (for O'Reilly, Hannity) (J. Glassman, 2017). Overall, local news has a daily audience of 39 million Americans. The top three cable networksCNN, Fox News, MSNBCcombined reach about 3 million prime-time viewers daily (Pew Research Center, 2016)
We know that the public expects local TV news to address political ads. The Common Content Election Survey (CCES) 2016 study, in which Center for Political Communication at UD participated, found that over half (57%) of the public stated that local newscasts rarely or never examined the political ads that were broadcast on their air. However, 51 percent of the respondents strongly agreed that they should examine the ads and another almost four in ten (39%) agreed with the statement. Therefore, almost nine of ten respondents (88%) expressed their desire for local TV newscasts to address the political ads that they present.
The policy implications of the research are significant and they span the gamut from political ad disclosure to ownership considerations. The Federal Communications Commission under President Trump has stated its strong preference for market mechanisms rather than regulation to address media questions. Those actions have already included a rescinding (Feb. 2017) of the FCC regulation that restricted service agreements among stations (the JSA rule), the reintroduction of the UHF discount (April 2017) and the abolition the main studio rule (May 2017). All of this within the context of the FCCs proposal to examine all media rules entitled the Modernization of Media Regulation.
The media industry has already signaled its belief that the new FCC will allow for more media consolidation in local markets. In a strange twist, the largest media consolidation dealSinclair and Tribune, was essentially denied by a decision of the FCC in mid-July 2018. It was a bombshell and it surprised everyone, including Sinclair. If it had been accepted, Sinclair would have controlled 233 stations in 108 markets (there are 210 markets in the U.S.), including 39 of the top 50. But, even though that deal was denied, there are other consolidation plans that have been announced. And the consolidation will continue. As of mid-2018, five large station groups (with Sinclair the largest) will control 43 percent of all commercial television stations in the U.S. (Pew Media Research, 2017).
In this mixed methods research project, we coded the content of over 1552 local news broadcasts (including political ads) from September to November of the 2016 Presidential campaign in 10 television markets across the U.S.including battleground statesto examine the relationship between political ads and political stories. The coded data revealed almost 60,000 broadcast elements (stories, commercials, political ads, sports/weather segments) of which there were almost 30,000 stories and over 10,000 political ads. Within the stories, 3,892 addressed the campaign. Both the political ads and the political stories are undergoing a second round of coding.
In addition, we developed detailed profiles of each market (political, sociodemographic, ownership structure, economic, civic engagement, political ad spending, news capacity) of each of the television markets in the sample. We will examine the relationship among those factors and the content that the audiences saw on the broadcasts. What does it mean for the political information that citizens receive, particularly in local places?
What is the relationship between local television news broadcasts and the political ads that appear on the programs? What political stories are covered? How are they covered? Are the political ads that appear on the air examined for their accuracy? What might it mean for the civic engagement of citizens in communities?
The databases that we have developed represent a unique opportunity to understand the factors that determine the political information that citizens receive. In this era of fake news and the questioning of the media as an institution that is crucial information for the public and policymakers.