ACTION ALERT: Political Ads Need Media Scrutiny

The level of political advertising during this year’s election cycle is expected to break records, and television stations will be the prime beneficiaries, collecting about $600 million in political advertising revenue. Considering that many campaign ads are misleading to voters, TV journalists should devote considerable resources to evaluating the accuracy of such advertising.

The level of political advertising during this year’s election cycle is expected to break records, and television stations will be the prime beneficiaries, collecting about $600 million in political advertising revenue. Considering that many campaign ads are misleading to voters, TV journalists should devote considerable resources to evaluating the accuracy of such advertising.

In an informal review of nightly network news over the last decade, FAIR found that stories analyzing the accuracy of campaign commercials were rare. In fact, when media did turn their attention to political ads, they often focused on the tactical advantages or disadvantages of the ads (“Is the candidate going negative here?”), rather than assessing the ad’s accuracy.

ABC’s World News Tonight featured its first “ad watch” segment in the 1996 national election (7/8/96)– a look at Clinton campaign ad highlighting candidate Bob Dole’s comments questioning nicotine’s addictiveness. Anchor Peter Jennings informed viewers that “you may have already noticed political ads on your television, which means it is time for us to start Ad Watch”– but that was the last ad watch segment World News Tonight aired in that election season.

The other networks did not do much better. CBS Evening News has done no more than a handful of segments assessing the accuracy of political ads since 1992, when they ran several during the presidential campaign. NBC Nightly News has aired little in the way of ad watch features since 1992.

On those rare occasions when the networks do report on political ads, their accuracy is often not addressed. As Stephen Hess of the Brooking Institute commented on CNN’s Inside Politics (11/26/98): “Ad-watches were a wonderful intervention. The media did it itself, and now you turn on the typical ad-watch and what it doesn’t tell you is this: Is this commercial true or false? It tells you why the journalist thinks that commercial was made. It’s all about the strategy and the tactics behind it, rather than the basic question of are we getting the truth.”

A study by media researchers published in the Harvard’s International Journal of Press/Politics (Fall 1996) found that 50 percent of network ad watches in 1992 contained no critical analysis of the of ad content. As the researchers point out, stories about ads that rerun the ad without offering critical analysis merely give free publicity to the campaign.

Unfortunately, for some viewers political ads are a more common source of information about a campaign than news programs. For example, the Center for Public Integrity reported that during the recent Senate primary campaign in New Jersey, television stations in New York and Philadelphia made $21 million from political ads. In the last two weeks of the campaign, citizens watching top Philadelphia and New York TV stations were 10 times more likely to see a campaign ad than a campaign news story.

This scenario is a profitable arrangement for broadcasters, who can reap the benefits of the current campaign finance system while ignoring any responsibility to present factual information that might undercut the lucrative advertisements.

One exception to the network trend of infrequent and uncritical ad features is CNN. Throughout the decade CNN has aired numerous reports assessing the accuracy of campaign commercials. Usually reported by CNN senior correspondent Brooks Jackson, the features virtually always address the commercials from the standpoint of truthfulness.

ACTION: Please contact the news networks and ask that they include regular features that assess the accuracy of the content of political advertisements. Stress that you would like to see critical scrutiny of the truthfulness of the claims made in the ads, and not just a discussion of such advertisements’ strategic value.

CONTACT:
NBC Nightly News
Phone: 212-664-4971 or 202-885-4259
Fax: 202-362-2009
mailto:Nightly@nbc.com

ABC World News Tonight
Phone: 212-456-4040
Fax: 212-456-2795
mailto:netaudr@abc.com

CBS Evening News
Phone: 212-975-3691, 202 457-4385
Fax: 212-975-1893
mailto:audsvcs@cbs.com

You might also contact CNN to commend them for their regular attention to
the accuracy of political ads.

CNN– Washington Bureau
Phone: 202-898-7900
Fax: 202-898-7923
mailto:cnn.feedback@cnn.com

Author: fair.org

News Service: fair.org

URL: http://www.fair.org