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
"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
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
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)