Term Paper: Political News Coverage of Presidential Campaigns

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Presidential Election & TV

The availability of televisions in the late 1940's led to the belief that a new period was arising in public communication. Columbia Broadcasting System President Frank Stanton said,

Television, with its penetration, its wide geographic distribution and impact, provides a new, direct and sensitive link between Washington and the people. The people have once more become the nation, as they have not been since the days when we were small enough each to know his elected representative. As we grew, we lost this feeling of direct contact-television has now restored it. (Campbell)

One of the expectations for TV, then, was in its capacity to inform and motivate the American electorate. Large segments of the public had immediate contact with political events. Television has fulfilled its expectation for reaching the U.S. public. It has become the dominant source of political news. It is also the most important provider of election media coverage of all the media. According to CNN, by 2000, 98% of all American households owned a minimum of one television set. However, it is not only straight factual information that is being covered on TV. Through the well-rehearsed debates, political advertisements, commentaries and talk shows, the audience or voting public hears two completely different sides of an issue. The question thus remains: How much are viewers influenced by what they see and hear on the tube? Do voters make their decisions based on an understanding of the issues? Or, are skeptics correct? Issues no longer count in the presidential race: Votes are bought by professional image makers, pollsters and spin doctors. It appears that there is no consistency across the board to this answer. It varies on factors such as the voters' attitudes before the election as well as the specific vehicle being used to communicate information. In this high-tech age, presidential elections are won by a combination of issue-based and personal-image campaigning (Campbell).

Studying the effects of mass communication on elections began in the beginning of the 20th century. Propaganda in the World Wars made people question the direct and indirect impact of media messages on recipients (Laswell, 1948, p.39). Understanding the connection between TV and final votes is much more difficult now, since analysts can no longer satisfy report elections by stating the actions and views of candidates. "The Press now has to present campaigns in a manner that not only satisfies individuals' expectations in terms of entertainment and information, but also fulfills candidates' needs for communicating to voters" (Owen, 1991, p. xvii). To determine the impact of their increased role in the voting process, journalists must incorporate social science techniques into their coverage of campaigns. This has resulted in a number of changes, including the ongoing broadcast of opinion poll results during presidential races. In addition, reporters dig deep into the candidates' personal lives and supplement news reports with commentary about the political situation surrounding the election.

Although controversy exists regarding the degree of television's impact, there is agreement about the change in political party adherence. Since the 1950s, less people have identified with one particular party (Levine, 2002, p.1). Increasing numbers of individuals are saying they are independents. To some extent, TV is responsible for this trend. Since television lets voters see candidates close-up in their living rooms, viewers form political judgments for themselves rather than by party affiliation.

Political ads play a major role in present-day voting. The amount of advertising has increased significantly over the past several decades. The first presidential television ad spots were first aired in the 1952 campaign between General Dwight D. Eisenhower and Governor Adlai Stephenson and have been growing incrementally ever since. By 1972, 15% of campaign expenditures were put toward broadcasting. By 1988, about 20% went to purchase airtime. The 2004 election beat all records of money spent on advertising -- over a billion dollars. In fact, the total outlaid on spots in the final week of the campaign was more than one-quarter of that during the entire 2000 campaign (Campbell).

Deciding what message to put in the ads, as well as where and when they run, has become a much-desired talent. Like products, campaigners develop their commercials based on game plans to reach the desired target populations. Ed Rollins, Ronald Regan's campaign manager once said in conjunction with the 1984 campaign against Walter Mondale: "We made some fundamental decisions...to take [Mondale] on the tax issue...to try and drive [his] negatives back up...The decision was to go with two negative commercials for every one positive commercial...Let me say that the commercials really worked, we drove [Mondale's negatives back up again, the tax thing because the dominant issue at least in our polling, and it helped us get ready for the final week of the campaign" (Moore, 1986, p. 206).

Results regarding the impact of advertising are mixed. The University of Missouri School of Journalism and Pew Research Center for the People and the Press (see website) conducted a study of the media coverage, political advertising and public opinion in the 2004 presidential election. The analysis examined how the character of the candidates was portrayed in the TV news, advertising and late night comedy programs spanning four months from March to June 2004. The study then surveyed the public about these major campaign themes to see which themes people did or did not believe. It further analyzed their ad and media consumption behavior, controlling for various factors, to isolate which forms of media may have an impact on public attitudes.

They found that 1) the more people pay attention to news coverage, the more likely they are to match the character traits with the candidates the same way as the media; 2) people pay closer attention to candidate news in the battleground states; 3) but advertising has only a limited impact on the public's thinking.

Research by Pew (noted on the website) in the 2000 election found that it is not so much having ads, but not having them that can make a candidate lose. Although the election is mainly won on issues and voter turnout, advertising can make a difference at the margin. This is especially true when there is a one-sided flow of information, and voters are soft in their attitudes towards the two candidates. Pew's analysis of 100,000 voters before the Republican Convention in the 17 contested states, found that Gore had begun to close up the gap with Bush in large part because the Republicans went off the air while Gore stayed on the air with messages that were resonating -- advertising works, particularly when it is not rebutted.

Negative ads have also increased significantly during this past century. There are no fast rules on how do write political advertisements. Prior to the 1980s, however, candidates usually used issue or image ads at the beginning of a campaign to establish their positive image and turned to negative ads at the end of the campaign to attack the opponent. Such strategies were abandoned in the 1980s. Now, instead, the trend is toward negative political advertising throughout the entire campaign. In today's political environment, candidates, either challengers or incumbents, use negative ads from the beginning of a political campaign to the end. After examining more than 1,100 political commercials, Sabato (1981) asserted that:

Even when television is used to communicating political truth (at least from one candidate's perspective), the truth can be negatively packaged -- attacking the opponent's character and record rather than supporting one's own. If there is a single trend obvious to most American consultants, it is the increasing proportion of negative political advertising.... At least a third of all spot commercials in recent campaigns have been negative, and in a minority of campaigns half or more of the spots are negative in tone or substance.

A study conducted in 1999 found that negative ads build in their effectiveness over time with the so-called sleeper effect phenomenon (Lariscy, 1999, np). In an experiement, adult subjects were asked to report their vote and its certainty immediately after negative message exposure and in a delayed telephone callback. Results showed that a defensive advertisement following the attack is initially effective. However, during the next several weeks, the impact of the attack ads increases substantially. Similarly, an initial perception that the assailant has low credibility has only a short-term suppressive impact on the effectiveness of the attack ad. The researchers noted that documentation of both an order-driven and a credibility-driven sleeper effect poses strategic challenges for those candidates who are attacked. In addition, these results offer possible insights into the determinants and the pervasiveness of the sleeper effect in political campaigns

While some researchers support the use of negative advertising, others assert that attack politics boomerang. According to Basil et. al. (1991, p.245), the counterproductive aspects of negative political advertising "may arise from the fact that negative advertisements are rated as 'effective' because the message itself is remembered, but 'ineffective' because the candidate sponsoring the ad is harmed."

Some viewers disapprove of advertising that… [END OF PREVIEW]

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