Journalistic Responsibility and Political Advertising: A Content Analysis of Coverage by State and Local Media

Article excerpt

In modern political campaigns voters must rely on the mass media for most of their information about political candidates and issues. Candidates, of course, seek to maximize the advantages of this reliance for their own campaigns by providing voters with information the candidate can control directly, usually in the form of televised political advertising. As advertising has become more and more dominant in campaigns and as new media technologies have provided campaigns with new ways to manipulate media messages, journalists have recognized the importance of providing voters with independent information about such advertising messages. In fact, Washington Post columnist David Broder issued a call for journalists to improve their efforts to verify claims made in candidate spots (Broder, 1989). Political consultant Roger Aries (1991) characterized news coverage of candidate spots as follows: "... journalists, who had begun to feel ignored, decided to go on the offensive. They vowed to protect the American people and formed, as Michael Oreskes of the New York Times termed it, a self-appointed journalistic `police force' to clean up campaign advertising" (p. 27).

Researchers noticed the increased attention given to political spots and began to investigate journalistic coverage of candidate advertising. However, most of the research focused on journalistic coverage of political advertising has been done on presidential campaign coverage on national television networks or prestige press print outlets, ignoring state and local elections and journalistic reporting for state and local newspaper and television media. This neglect is particularly significant since survey evidence indicates that less than half (42%) of the American public regularly watch one of the network news broadcasts while 650/0 say they watch their local news (TV viewership declines, 1996). This study seeks to address this deficiency in existing literature by examining both print and local broadcast analysis at both the presidential and nonpresidential level during the 1996 campaign.

Journalistic Coverage of Political Advertising

In the United States today democracy functions through the constant interplay of government, the media, and the citizenry. The media's role in this relationship is usually highlighted by its responsibility to provide citizens with information needed to make informed and rational decisions (often labeled the social responsibility theory of the press). Among the tenets articulated by the Commission on the Freedom of the Press in 1947, social responsibility theory of the press instructs that media should "represent all hues of the social spectrum," take responsibility for the quality of their programming, and "inject truth in advertising" (Black & Bryant, 1992, p 532). Although there may be many applications of these tenets to media coverage of political campaigns, the "truth in advertising" responsibility is particularly relevant here, especially since a regulatory agency for political advertisements does not exist. As Patterson and Wilkins (1998) in their popular textbook on media and ethics point out, this journalistic responsibility is a challenging one in modern campaigns because candidates now have so many capabilities for manipulation.

In the late 1980's journalists began to recognize how significant television advertising had become in the voter decision-making process and to see the need to provide another viewpoint or interpretive mode for this type of direct, unmediated form of candidate to voter communication. Journalists subsequently adopted a new strategy for covering campaigns, the "adwatch." Adwatches can be defined as "media critiques of candidate ads designed to inform the public about truthful or misleading advertising claims" (Kaid, Tedesco, & McKinnon, 1996, p. 297). As described by West (1993) adwatches "review the content of prominent commercials and discuss their accuracy and effectiveness" (p. …