Political Ads Win Over News 45 to 1 in Philly TV News 2014

[press: Columbia Journalism Review, USA Today, BloombergPolitics, Washington Post]

Study finds 842 minutes of political Ads compared to 18.7 minutes of political news stories in large sample of Philadelphia TV news programs archived by the Internet Archive in a joint project.

In the closing eight weeks of the 2014 campaign, political candidates and outside groups bombarded viewers of Philadelphia’s major TV stations with nearly 12,000 ads designed to sway voters in the Nov. 4 elections. But the stations that benefited from political advertisers’ $14 million spending spree also appear to have devoted little time to political journalism. A study of a representative sampling of newscasts on those stations put the ratio of time devoted to political advertising and spent on substantive political news stories at 45:1.

Political Ads & Local TV News – Philly 2014, by Danilo Yanich

These are the findings of a University of Delaware team lead by Associate Professor Danilo Yanich. The university’s Center for Community Research and Service researchers collaborated with the Internet Archive, The Sunlight Foundation, and the Committee of Seventy – the 100+ year-old Philadelphia-based political watchdog organization.

Our joint pilot project, Philly Political Media Watch, worked to open a library of all television news from stations based in and around Philadelphia and index the political ads presented in their newscasts. The ads were joined with information on who paid how much for them.  The Sunlight Foundation was able to unearth those financial data from being buried in PDF disclosures every TV stations is required to submit to the Federal Communications Commission. The experimental project was supported by individual contributors and grants from the Democracy Fund and the Rita Allen Foundation.

Philly TV Market AreaThe Philadelphia television market was chosen as a 2014 laboratory to experiment how the interaction between news media and political money; to learn lessons that could be taken to scale across the nation in 2016. The Philadelphia region is the nation’s 4th largest TV market, 19% African American, and includes parts of three states. In 2014, important contests in the region included races for: Pennsylvania governor, a Delaware U.S. Senate seat, two open congressional seats in New Jersey and an open state Senate seat in suburban Philadelphia.

The six major Philadelphia metro TV stations carried 8,003 political ads in their news broadcasts between September 8 and Election Day. As Yanich’s report notes, political strategists have long acknowledged that they try to place ads during or near news programming because it attracts the highest proportion of likely voters.

Here is a sample program from the Delaware study.  This 60-minute WCAU, a NBC affiliate, program aired at 5:00pm the day before the elections.  It offered two substantive political stories.  One about election day poll hours and the other about the leading candidates for governor commenting on their attack ads.  Good set up.  Questions of incumbent elicit an unequivocal assessment of opponent’s assertions.   Followed by other candidate asked if his ads are negative.  Seemingly timely and germane.  Quiz: Can you find WCAU’s mistake followed sometime later by an unacknowledged correction?

Although WCAU clearly addressed important election issues, that same 60 minute program was also stuffed with 24 political ads.  Here is one, below.  Quiz: Can you spot the word “EBOLA”?  And for extra credit: which is more toxic to our Republic, this kind of ad or the disease?

Although local TV station marketing directors are more than happy to accommodate the needs of political ad buyers, the  local news directors appear to take a less supportive view of their audience’s interest in politics. Yanich and his research team looked at a representative sample of the news programs (390 of 1,256) and found politics taking a back seat to other types of stories in terms both of time and placement in the broadcast. The Delaware researchers found that many of the political stories aired were blandly informational, describing candidate schedules or appearances. Isolating political stories that focused on substantive political issues, Yanich’s team found that during the broadcasts they analyzed, there 18.7 minutes of those stories, compared to 842 minutes of political ads, a ratio of 45:1.

Next Steps

With so much heat, where will citizens find the light they need to navigate through this onslaught of political messaging?

Internet_Archive 2016 Political Ad TrackerThe Internet Archive has begun to welcome new collaborators to join us in tackling the challenge of creating timely information resources for the 2016 U.S. election cycles. Data individuals and civic organizations can trust when considering how to participate in some of their community’s most important decision making. Reliable information they can use to hold television stations accountable for the choices they make in balancing obligations to serve the information needs of their communities and the allure of one of their biggest revenues sources: political advertising.

How might we better inform voters and increase civic participation before, during and after elections?



2 thoughts on “Political Ads Win Over News 45 to 1 in Philly TV News 2014

  1. Pragmatic non-ideologue

    After thinking hard about it for the last 5-6 years, an epiphany has slowly hatched from the primordial goo and confusion.
    The problem: modern two-party system* is hopelessly broken, and corrupted from a focus on service to the public interest to a focus on special interests. There is too much money, power and ego involved to believe that meaningful reform can come from within the two parties. Any meaningful threat to the status quo can be co-opted and then slowly and subtly subverted into oblivion. Both parties are expert at that ancient political tactic.
    The solution: Independents and young (< ~30 yr old?) voters are more open to change than the old guard with its entrenched ideologies and self-interests so that is the source of change. A multi-prong approach to building real opposition would require, at least,
    1. An articulation of politics based on non-ideological pragmatism (unspun facts and unbiased logic) focused on service to the public interest;
    2. Building a Wikipedia for politics to elucidate political issues for people to easily access and understand major competing policy choices based on unspun facts and an unbiased assessment of pros and cons for each;
    3. Getting buy-in from individuals or groups who are willing to participate in coalition building, including the building of a coalition that serves as a voice for non-ideological pragmatism ("secular politics"?), e.g., IVN ( http://ivn.us/ ), Sunlight Foundation ( http://sunlightfoundation.com/ ), FactCheck, Politifact, etc;
    4. Building funding from public service-focused foundations (Annenberg, etc) and individuals open to supporting the concept of elevating politics from a spin- and emotion-based special interest fee for service activity to politics more focused on the public interest** with minimal reliance on ideology.

    Since it looks like we are entering a long period of gridlock and even more intense partisan hate and distrust, the public interest is likely to take even bigger hits than it has in recent years. The underlying assumption is that if things don't change in politics in the next generation or two, things could get really ugly. Maybe even blood in the streets type ugly. It is time to get rid of politics v. 1.x and replace it with politics v. 2.0. Anyway, that's just a thought.

    * Two-party system, my definition: Both parties, their politicians, their major (not moderate or small) campaign contributors and the partisan- or ideologically-biased and/or economically (profit) disabled press and media.
    ** Serving the public interest, my definition: Governing and conducting commerce by finding an optimum balance between serving public and private interests based on a pragmatic, non-ideological assessment of competing policy choices, while (1) being reasonably transparent and responsive to public opinion, (2) protecting and growing the American economy and its standard of living, (3) defending personal freedoms, (4) protecting national security and the environment and (5) fostering global peace, stability and prosperity whenever reasonably possible.

  2. Pragmatic non-ideologue

    Here is some of the science basis for the rationale behind proposing politics v. 2.0:

    The point is that the science has progressed enough to build a political framework based on reality instead of the fantasy-based mess it is now. And, there are lots people willing to consider something new if evidence of voter registration preferences and widespread unhappiness are any indication:

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