The influence of the media is increased by the fact that campaigns today have become more focused on the individual than on the party. In order to win primaries, individual candidates seek media attention to gain attention from voters. As a result, do voters hold political power, or has the media simply replaced political parties as the primary force behind candidate selection?
Shanto Iyengar, professor of political science and communication studies at UCLA, has pioneered the research in the framing effects of news coverage on public opinion and political choice. He explains that viewers are "sensitive to contextual cues when they reason about national affairs. Their explanations of issues like terrorism or poverty are critically dependent upon the particular reference points furnished in media presentations."
Does the fallout from exposure to political advertising spread to commercial advertising in general? We attempt to answer this question experimentally, by manipulating exposure to political advertising and then measuring participants’ attitudes towards political and commercial ad campaigns. We also manipulate the tone of political advertising in order to assess the impact of negative political campaigns on the audience’s confidence in political and product advertisers. Our results indicate that exposure to political advertising in general -- and negative political advertising in particular -- strengthens viewers’ relative confidence in commercial advertising. People do assimilate their generally unfavorable ratings of political ads to the commercial advertising arena. Nor do they express more favorable attitudes toward commercial advertising in the aftermath of exposure to political advertising. However, because campaigns heighten distaste for political advertising, the net effect is to boost the relative appeal of commercial advertising. Thus, exposure to political campaigns enlarges the contrast between commercial and political advertising.
Yet a growing number of pieces have been written in recent years suggesting that the ideal of objectivity has, in the words of Ben Bagdikian, "exacted a high cost from journalism and from public policy." Social historian Michael Schudson points out that objectivity became a standard in journalism "precisely when the impossibility of overcoming subjectivity in presenting the news was widely accepted and ... precisely because subjectivity had come to be regarded as inevitable."
Exposure to political campaigns has extracted a similar toll on the public’s views of political advertising. There is ample survey data showing that the public dislikes media-based political campaigns. According to the most recent surveys by the Pew Center, a majority of the electorate (some 60 percent) felt that campaign commercials were not useful in helping them choose a candidate during the 1998 elections and more than two-thirds (68%) judged the campaign as "nasty" (Pew Center, 1998). And in a recent survey of voters in Virginia, some three-fourths of the sample indicated that negative campaigns were likely to discourage people from voting (Freedman, 1999).
Arthur J. Heise, associate professor at Florida International University in Miami, sees the role of the media as a "public management function," one he sees as essential to a healthy democracy. The erosion of public confidence in government can be at least partially attributed to the media's failure "in its role as a free and independent press . . . to live up to its constitutional responsibilities. Many in the news media could agree, at least in large measure, that they are not covering the affairs of the state as fully, as penetratingly and as aggressively as they might."
This same conclusion is drawn by New York University's Robert Karl Manoff in the March/April 1987 issue of Center Magazine. He maintains that one of the major problems of today's journalism is that the press is allied with the state. "The press," he writes, "is actually a handmaiden of power and American politics." It reports governmental conflict only when conflict exists within the state itself. Journalists and officials share a "managerial ethos" in which both agree that national security, for instance, is best handled without the public's knowledge.
Even though the use of political advertising has spread exponentially, both in terms of the sheer frequency of exposure and the increased length of political campaigns, political advertising is still miniscule compared with commercial advertising. The total cost of the 1996 election (all races combined) amounted to approximately $2.5 billion (Center for Responsive Politics, 1999). This figure is less than the annual advertising budget for major U.S. corporations. During the height of the 1996 campaign, the research firm CMR found that fewer than one percent of all televised advertisements (750,000 out of 93,000,000) in the top 75 media markets were sponsored by political candidates or organizations (Goldstein, 1998). Clearly, the public’s distaste for these advertisements is based on factors other than sheer frequency.
In their oft-quoted book (1981), David Paletz and Robert Entman argue that "by granting elites substantial control over the content, emphases, and flow of public opinion, media practices diminish the public's power." What this means, they concluded, was that "the mass media are often the unwitting handmaidens of the powerful."
The problem may have less to do with the type or the quantity of coverage than with the fact that most of the time most of the media rely on information not ferreted out by investigative reporters but provided by government. This reliance on officially-provided information is such that journalists as prominent as Tom Wicker of the New York Times have described it as the "biggest weakness" of the American press"
The press ... is too frail to carry the whole burden of popular sovereignty, to supply spontaneously the truth which democrats hoped was inborn. And when we expect it to supply such a body of truth we employ a misleading standard of judgment. We misunderstand the limited nature of news.
The most distinctive feature of contemporary political campaign advertisements is the negativity of their content and tone. Political advertisers frequently engage in so-called "comparative" advertising in which the opposing candidate’s program and performance are criticized and even ridiculed. Highlighting the opponent’s liabilities and weaknesses usually takes precedence over identifying the sponsor’s program and strengths. In the most comprehensive tracking of campaign advertising to date, scholars at the Annenberg School of Communication have found that such "negative" advertising makes up approximately one-third of all campaign ads used in presidential campaigns (Jamieson et al., 1998). The level of negativity is actually significantly greater when one considers frequency-weighted indicators of content (Prior, 1999). In 1996, for instance, while fewer than one-half of the ads produced by the major candidates featured negative appeals, these appeals accounted for some seventy percent of the candidates’ ad buys (Goldstein, 1998). While we do not have comparable data for any commercial advertising campaign, the "comparative" element is unlikely to be so prominent; when compared with commercial ads, political ads are much more negative in content.