The University of Delaware’s Danilo
Yanich has been researching political advertising and news coverage, and
their connections with citizenship and public policy, for much of his
career, but even he was shocked at the analysis his team conducted of
Philadelphia television in 2014.
With more and more money being spent on political advertising — most
of it airing on local television stations — in recent years, media
companies have claimed that the revenue they receive from campaigns and
political action committees (PACs) helps to support critical political
Researchers decided to look into that claim by collecting empirical data, said Yanich, associate professor in UD’s School of Public Policy and Administration and a policy scientist with the school’s Center for Community Research and Service.
“So, during the 2014 campaign season in Philadelphia, we looked,” he said. “And it was even worse than I had thought.”
With a team of six graduate and undergraduate students, Yanich
examined a representative sample of news broadcasts aired on the six
major Philadelphia TV stations between Sept. 8 and Election Day, Nov. 4.
During the 390 broadcasts the researchers watched and analyzed, they
found that paid political ads far outnumbered political news reports and
that most of those news reports merely described candidates’ schedules
or public appearances.
When the researchers zeroed in on political reporting that critically
examined issues in the campaign, they got even more lopsided results,
with the amount of time devoted to political ads outnumbering the time
spent on substantive political journalism by a 45-to-1 ratio. Of the
broadcasts analyzed, Yanich’s team found 18.7 minutes of substantive
reporting and 842 minutes of political advertising.
Their conclusion: The $14.4 million the stations received in
political advertising contracts during the 2014 campaign season was not
used to strengthen political reporting or inform viewers about the
The report, “Philly Political Media Watch,” authored by Yanich, has
drawn widespread attention. Next, the UD team and its partners in the
project hope to expand their work during the 2016 campaign season, with a
goal of researching as many as 20 major media markets.
Philadelphia was selected for the initial study because of its size
and a coverage area that includes parts of three states. In 2014,
political races included the Pennsylvania governorship, a U.S. Senate
seat in Delaware and one in suburban Philadelphia, and two open
congressional seats in New Jersey.
“So we looked at Philadelphia as a model to put in place for further
research,” Yanich said. “Our intention is to examine the same phenomenon
elsewhere. I can hypothesize what we’ll find, but we don’t know until
we do the work whether the findings will be different in different
markets, with different TV stations or in different kinds of races.”
Partners in the research project hope to obtain funding and volunteer
help to expand, focusing on battleground states with competitive races
wherever possible. The students and other research assistants who watch
news broadcasts and characterize every report according to an objective
checklist are carefully trained, Yanich said.
In 2016, the primary season will likely be used for training and
practice, and then the final research will begin when the political
conventions are over and will continue until Election Day.
And there’s no reason to expect any decline in advertising. It’s
estimated that $5 billion will be spent on advertising during the
presidential campaign. Donors David and Charles Koch alone have
announced that they will spend $889 million in 2016, putting them on a
financial par with the major political parties.
“Political ads have virtually taken over what citizens know and learn
about campaign political issues and candidates,” Yanich wrote in the
report. “There were so many of them [in Philadelphia] that, in some
ways, journalism never had a fighting chance.”
More about the research team
The Philly Political Media Watch Project was “a unique project that
required the collaboration among crucial partners,” Yanich said.
They included technologists, academics, journalists and civic
activists, funded by the Democracy Fund and the Rita Allen Foundation
and led by the Internet Archive that compiled the newscasts and
political ads for study. The Sunlight Foundation provided the analysis
of the cost of every political ad, and volunteers from the Philadelphia
political watchdog group Committee of Seventy helped analyze the
Watching every newscast and coding every report aired during that
broadcast to characterize its content is a labor-intensive process, but
Yanich said it’s the only method that yields scientifically rigorous
results. The UD students, he said, were invaluable in their hard work
and passion for the research.
They were Ally Becker, who supervised the coding effort, and research
assistants Valerie Lane, Gemma Tierney, Sarah Fulton, Jessica Stump and