Attack and Inform: Campaign spin actually informs and engages voters, in some states

Originally posted at The Blue Review on Oct. 9, 2012:

Compared to the barrage of political advertising in the 10 or so swing states that will decide this election, Idaho is on the sidelines, viewed as a guaranteed win for one party and a lost cause for the other. It can be hard to tell there’s an election going on at all here, and while we might be thankful that we don’t have to listen to candidates endlessly “approve this message” like folks in Ohio, Nevada or Florida, we may be less informed as a result.

Conventional wisdom and polling data tell us that political ads, which are mostly negative, turn people off and drive us further apart. They disillusion, they polarize, they depoliticize. They are what we’re referring to when we talk about our mean, ugly politics. But here’s the thing: They also educate us.

Research has long supported the idea that political advertising is one of the main ways citizens learn about the candidates. Some people even learn more from ads than they do from news. And this is especially true for negative attack ads, which have constituted about 70 percent of all political advertising in this election. That’s way up from what it used to be: less than 10 percent in 1960 and around 30 percent in the 1980s.

Why the dramatic rise? First of all, attack ads work. Negative ads highlight the issues for which candidates want to be known and help distinguish their policy ideas from their opponent’s. Secondly, the rise of interest groups following the 2010 Citizens United decision has contributed to the flood of negative ads; the candidates themselves account for less than half of the ad spending. Finally, news media attention focuses more and more on campaign strategy, and this coverage helps drive the trend.

Why is the news implicated? It’s largely because of a general shift since the 1970s from descriptive, fact-based news to interpretative, commentary-based news. So the campaigns use negative ads to drive and control the free media agenda. Think of the attacks on Obama for his welfare waiver policy or the attacks on Romney related to his time at Bain Capital. See, for example, the number of Obama-Romney news stories about “welfare reform ad” and “Bain Capital ad.” The ads basically function as press releases and help control the news agenda, which is exactly what the candidates want.

Unfortunately, today’s pared-down newsrooms have seen major declines in reporting and editing capacity in recent years. As former FCC chairman Michael Copps has noted, “The credo in these pared-down newsrooms has been to do more with less, but too often, they wind up doing less with less.” Local broadcast television is still the chief source of news for Americans, but those broadcasts consist mostly of reports about crime, sports, weather and soft features. And when the election does make the news on the networks and cable television, it’s rarely for the right reasons. News reporters spend a majority of their time covering the horse race with little attention paid to a candidate’s public record or policy plans.

What about the Internet, with its endless supply of information? Won’t that save us from the lack of quality journalism in traditional formats? Unfortunately, research suggests it might not. Studies have shown that between 80 and 95 percent of news reporting on the web actually originates in traditional newsrooms tied to legacy media outlets. As a source of information and commentary, the web is great for people with high levels of political motivation. But for the rest of the fragmented public, the web and those wonderful gadgets that keep us constantly connected might actually serve as diversions from learning the information we need as self-governing citizens. As Copps noted, “We seem to have so much media enveloping us—yet we are not being informed.”

The effect of this cumulative depoliticization of our culture is to leave an opening for political candidates and interest groups to spend vast amounts of money trying to win our votes or perhaps even get us to stay home on Election Day. Total spending for this election, including presidential and congressional races, could reach nearly $6 billion, up from around $5.4 billion in 2008. Local television outlets, which are more than happy to reap the benefits, have already received more than $700 million. Big spending on paid ads is replacing less lucrative but essential election coverage—and the less reporters cover the campaigns, the more the campaigns turn to ad buys to inform the public.

Virtually none of that money is making its way to Idaho, which saw less than $200,000 in political advertising this year, as of Super Tuesday on March 6, and very little new spending since then. The Boise television market has taken in around $100,000 in political advertising this campaign season, according to the Washington Post. Compare that to swing state media markets such as Las Vegas ($28.7 million), Orlando ($25.6 million), Cedar Rapids, Iowa ($7.5 million), and Charlotte, N.C. ($30.2 million). To be sure, most citizens in those markets can’t wait for the election to be over so they can stop being bludgeoned with ads, but perhaps they are also benefiting from learning about issues and policies that many of the rest of us are missing out on.

One answer to all of this is to publically finance elections or at least create more limits on the amount of money that can go to influencing election outcomes. Give candidates free airtime on the public airwaves. Create a more diverse media environment by bolstering public news outlets so we don’t have to rely almost exclusively on commercial, profit-oriented outlets. Make policies that encourage coverage of public affairs and put greater limits on concentrated media ownership.

The First Amendment encourages us not to put limits on media content, but even the Supreme Court has noted that freedom of speech and the press sometimes needs to be enhanced and protected through laws that serve the public interest. Because news is a public good, the market is not likely to provide enough of it without some kind of help. We should also increase teaching of media and information literacy so our citizens are well equipped to think critically about their media environment.

In 1922, Walter Lippmann, perhaps our first modern media critic, expressed doubts that citizens could be capable of self-government or that media could provide the information necessary to sustain a democracy. With our current levels of political participation and knowledge among the lowest of democratic countries, Lippmann’s concerns remain relevant today. This election is a good time to ask ourselves if our media environment has become toxic to our democracy.


About Seth

Journalism and media studies professor
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