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21 May 2004

Television Primary Information Source for Most 2004 Voters

Advertisements, not news, likely have greater influence

By Darlisa Crawford
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington -- In the 2004 presidential campaign, television will be voters' primary source of information but, in spite of the extensive news coverage and high-tech innovations, advertising may ultimately play a more important role than journalism.

Today's modern mass media reach hundreds of millions of people in the United States and throughout the world through television, radio, newspapers, magazines, books, film and the Internet. The American news media inform audiences about the candidates, their positions on the issues, opinion polls, political debates and conventions, and political advertisements. The news media also provide a watchdog mechanism for the public, work as a liaison between the public and its leaders, and influence candidate images and reputations.

Among the various mass media, television is the most important provider of election media coverage. According to CNN, by 2000, 98 percent of all American households owned at least one television set. Television has become the dominant source of political news for the American public.

The way television media cover candidates has changed dramatically. In the past, media coverage of presidential candidates restricted itself mostly to candidates' official duties and activities. Now candidates invite reporters to experience daily life on the campaign trail, coverage that personalizes candidates to a greater degree than before. Interviews with candidates in their homes or in the studio, and televised dinners with the candidates and local families provide the public with information about the issues and candidates in a more personal manner.

The Hearst-Argyle television network received the University of Southern California-Annenberg School's Walter Cronkite Award for Excellence in Television Political Journalism for coverage of the 2000 and 2002 elections. Hearst-Argyle's political programming consisted of 200 cumulative hours on local, state and national campaigns. Currently, the network provides viewers "truth checks" of political advertisements and web sites dedicated to political information. During the 2004 primary season, a one-hour special, "On the Campaign Trail," offered profiles on the private lives of Democratic presidential candidates. For example, it showed Senator Joseph Lieberman doing his laundry, General Wesley Clark exercising and Senator John Edwards riding a campaign bus with his two children.

The American public's appetite for campaign coverage intensifies with each election year and is whetted by the media's embrace of new technologies. Traditionally, candidates have used buses on the campaign trail. In recent years, as election coverage has been upgraded: CNN and ABC News have introduced their own high-technology buses equipped with mobile television studios and news bureaus to the campaign trail.

"We have devoted a lot of effort to get people to understand that the buses aren't a gimmick." ABC News political director Mark Helprin said. "They allow us to do better journalism."

The New York Times recently commented on how technology is reshaping the work of correspondents and the media's coverage of campaigns. "Campaign reporters, like war correspondents, are not necessarily gadget geeks. But the rapacious 24-hour news cycle has forced them onto the cutting edge to do their jobs better -- or at least faster. The equipment is even altering the shape of the correspondent's day, which now includes scrolling in the morning through The Note, an online political briefing from ABC News, and checking one another's web sites at night, trying all the while to get a jump on everyone else."

POLITICAL ADVERTISEMENTS

"Political advertising is now the major means by which candidates for the presidency communicate their messages to voters," wrote Dr. Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and Director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center. "As a conduit of this advertising, television attracts both more candidate dollars and more audience attention than radio or print."

By 1980 the 60-second political advertisement or "spot" had replaced the half-hour broadcast speech delivered by presidential candidates since 1952. The standard length of a political spot in 2004 is 30 seconds. According to Jamieson, the spot ad is the most used and the most viewed of all available forms of advertising.

Political spots create name recognition, ask questions about what the candidate views as central to the election, personalize current issues, communicate a candidate's talents and agendas for the future, and attack an opponent's perceived flaws. Some political scholars suggest that political advertisements provide the electorate with more information than network news.

"If I had a choice between watching what you typically see in news about campaigns and typical ads, I would watch the typical ad," said Jamieson. "And I'd watch it back to back, so I'd watch both candidates' advertising because in the give and take of advertising, you're likely to get more policy content than you are in the typical newscast-- too much of the news about campaigns tells us about the tactics, and the game, and the polls, and who's ahead and why, and too little about what these people have promised and what these people have done."

The Center for Media and Public Affairs, a nonpartisan research and educational organization, reported that the cost of political advertisements on television, the third highest source of ad revenues for the industry, has more than quadrupled since 1982. Candidates spent more than $1 billion on political advertisements in the 2002 election cycle. Alliance for Better Campaigns, a public interest group that seeks to improve U.S. elections by promoting campaigns in which the most useful information reaches the greatest number of citizens, has concluded that ad prices at 40 stations around the country increased by more than 50 percent in the two months before the 2002 elections.

According to TNS Media Intelligence/Campaign Media Analysis Group data, the Bush-Cheney campaign has spent approximately $56.7 million to broadcast 13 spots on television stations in 100 markets of battleground states. The research concludes that 63 percent or $36 million has been spent to air seven "negative" ads.

In recent months, a number of tax-exempt political organizations, known as "527 committees" after a provision in the U.S. tax code, have been formed to raise money in support of issues that play to Senator Kerry's advantage. By law, these groups work independently from the Kerry campaign. (Supporters of President Bush have also organized such groups, but to a significantly lesser extent.) According to USA today, 527 committees, such as MoveOn.org Voter Fund and The Media Fund, have spent approximately $30 million on television advertisements. University of Missouri-Columbia data show an estimated 84 percent of the statements in those 527 committees' 50 spots have been attacks targeting President Bush. These spots combined with the Kerry campaign's five negative ads that have aired on cable channels total more than $40 million spent on negative advertising to date.

"There's an interesting synergy in politics that occurs because the press focuses on attack in advertising," remarked Jamieson. "As a result, the consultant, knowing that the press is going to focus more closely on the attack ad, is more likely to carefully document the attack ad. So the level of inaccuracy in the attack ad is actually, on average, lower than it is in the contrast ad or the advocacy ad."

There are several types of political ads: negative ads -- ads that are "as much or more about your opponent than you," biographic and vision ads -- "ads that describe or emphasize the candidate's life or ‘vision' for America", issue ads -- "ads that discuss one or more specific issues and the candidate's proposals about them" and trust ads -- "ads that seek to convince voters that the candidate is someone they can trust to lead them during challenging times."

Tailored spots for specific local regions are also evident. For example, a recent series of Bush-Cheney campaign ads made mention of specific weapons systems -- supposedly opposed by Kerry. The Arizona version mentioned Apache helicopters, Tomahawk cruise missiles and F-18 aircraft "all built here in Arizona." Arizona was among nine states that carried state-specific versions of the same spot.

CNN reported that some of the 527 committees advertised anti-Bush spots in 38 markets of the 39 markets the Kerry campaign targeted and 15 markets of the 41 markets the Bush-Cheney campaign targeted, according to the Republican National Committee.

"I would expect Bush's ‘positive' percentage (of ads) to go up some and Kerry's ‘negative' percentage to rise a bit," said University of Missouri-Columbia communications professor William Benoit. "But Kerry's only likely to go really negative if he gets well behind in the polls."


(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)