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Candidates and UD researchers gear up for 2016 campaign season

Graduate student Allison Becker, who supervised the students and volunteers who helped analyze hundreds of news broadcasts, discusses the research with Danilo Yanich.

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 reporting. 

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 issues.

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 broadcasts. 

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 Nicholas Brock.

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UD researchers who found that TV political advertising in 2014 far outnumbered news reporting in Philadelphia hope to expand their work in 2016.

UD researchers, who studied Philadelphia television stations in 2014 and found that political advertising far outnumbered news reporting, hope to study additional media markets during the 2016 campaigns.

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