No surprise: Campaign ads dominate issues coverage on local news, study finds

The original version of this post quoted from a draft version of the report’s executive summary, which incorrectly conflated two of the study’s fundings. The post has been updated to quote from the final version.

In Philadelphia, “journalism never had a fighting chance.”

That’s part of the conclusion of a new study, released today, that looked at the extent to which local TV stations critically examined issues presented in political ads in the nation’s fourth largest media market during the 2014 election.

The bottom line: They didn’t.

The study comes from the Philly Political Media Watch Project, a collaboration between the Internet Archive, the Sunlight Foundation, Philadelphia’s Committee of Seventy, and the University of Delaware’s Center for Community Research & Service. A research team led by Delaware professor Danilo Yanich tracked political ad buys on six Philly area stations, and a representative sample of news broadcasts on those stations. Significantly, the researchers also broke down the news reporting about the campaign into six categories: the “horse race,” candidate campaigning, volunteer information, endorsements and campaign surrogates, “presidential possibilities,” and coverage of the issues raised by the campaigns in their ads. (The project received financial support from the Democracy Fund, which also supports CJR’s United States Project.)

The result is essentially an everything-you-feared-about-local-TV-and-political-campaigns-is-true document. Consider this statistic: in a sample of news broadcasts drawn from the two months before Election Day, the ratio of political ads to “issues” segments was 174 to 1, the group found.

Of course, ads are shorter than news segments. Shift the comparison to airtime rather than the number of segments, and the ratio drops to… 45 to 1.

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Here’s a bit from the executive summary:

During the last two months of the campaign, [c]andidates and third party advertisers spent $14.4 million to air some 12,000 commercials on six Philadelphia stations;

By far the largest number of those ads—just over 8,000—aired during news programs…

Political news stories, meanwhile, got far less airtime… [Even including all categories of news coverage in the sample.] viewers were exposed to four times as much political advertising as political journalism during news broadcasts.

The underlying data is posted online here, for anyone who would like to dig in further.

Philadelphia, of course, is just one city, and the researchers looked at only one, not-especially-competitive election cycle. As Yanich told me this week, “I did not want to offer this as some indictment on anyone.”

But the data speaks for itself—and the results are broadly consistent with what earlier analyses in other markets have found. Political campaigns value local news audiences, and cram their ads in during news broadcasts, repeating their messages over and over. Even in TV markets where stations do devote resources to factchecking and issue-oriented campaign news, political coverage can be “swamped by the endless barrage” of ads, as Sasha Chavkin wrote for CJR in 2012. Without that kind of editorial focus, the balance tips even further.

Political ads, it should be noted, can and do play a role in educating voters—but it’s obviously important to have journalists both evaluating the claims in those ads and bringing other issues and angles into the discussion. Just as obviously, no voter—in Philly, or elsewhere—gets every bit of her political information from local TV alone. Judging by the findings of this report, that’s a good thing.

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Corey Hutchins is CJR’s correspondent based in Colorado, where he is also a journalist for The Colorado Independent. A former alt-weekly reporter in South Carolina, he was twice named journalist of the year in the weekly division by the SC Press Association. Hutchins recently worked on the State Integrity In vestigation at the Center for Public Integrity and he has contributed to Slate, The Nation, The Washington Post, and others. Follow him on Twitter @coreyhutchins or email him at coreyhutchins@gmail.com.