Survey: Local news stations ignoring ‘toxic mix of money, politics & media’ leading up to election

Free Press | Bloomberg | NPR | CU News Corps | PBS Newshour

A Free Press report released this week says that “perhaps the most important story of the 2012 presidential election is the toxic mix of money, politics and media that is shaping so much of the discourse in the months before the general election. Yet that’s not a story you’ll find on the local news.”

In the report, called “Left In the Dark,” Free Press and volunteers examined the political files of CBS, ABC, NBC and Fox News affiliates in Charlotte, Cleveland, Las Vegas, Milwaukee and Tampa — all located in key swing states — and found that while many TV stations are covering local and national races, they are ignoring the ever-expanding role money and the media are playing in these contests.

It’s a longstanding problem that has only worsened in 2012. Wealthy donors,  corporations, lobbyists and politicians are aligning with powerful media companies against a public seeking to engage more fully in democracy. The scarcity of honest information about the misleading political ads invading our airwaves has knocked viewers and voters for a loss.

Bloomberg reported last month that local television viewers in Tampa saw an average of 232 political ads a day in a 30-day period ending August 20. NPR, meanwhile, reported that viewers in Colorado Springs are seeing three times as many political ads in September 2012 than they did at this same time in 2008. An analysis by the University of Colorado’s CU News Corps found that the four largest Denver TV stations have aired 18,956 ads through September 2012. “If you sat down at noon Sunday and watched each ad airing back-to-back, you wouldn’t emerge until six days and 14 hours later,” the analysis said.

It is questionable whether citizens are any more knowledgeable about political candidates after seeing these ads. Fueled largely by an influx of cash from Super PACS (or Super Political Action Committees), what is not in question is that news organizations (particularly television stations) stand to earn $3.3 billion from political ads by the November 6 Election Day, the report states.

TV stations have a limited amount of minutes in which to air the ads, so people “are seeing more ads per hour and you’re seeing ads in different shows where you didn’t used to, you know, game shows, soap operas, reality TV programming, where you used to really only see the ads in the news programs,” Ari Shapiro said earlier this week on PBS NewsHour.

Because airtime is so valuable, TV stations are also charging higher rates for the ads, Shapiro said, and more money is being spent in smaller geographic areas that may turn the election in favor of one candidate over another.

According to the Free Press report, 70 percent of the ads that aired in the first half of 2012 were negative, which have been shown to be an effective type of political advertising. Moreover, the report states that more than 85 percent of the money spent on presidential ads by outside “independent” groups, or Super PACS, contain deceptive information. But broadcasters in the swing state markets examined in its report “devoted little to no air time to fact-checking claims made in the ads, and the stations spent no time investigating the organizations that paid for the ads.”

“Election- year profiteering may explain broadcasters’ reluctance to cover political ad spending in their markets,” writes Free Press Senior Strategist Timothy Karr, who authored the report. “In exchange for this massive influx of political cash, broadcasters must do a better job of exposing the groups and individuals funding political ads in their markets, and addressing the falsehoods presented in many of these spots.”

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  • Anonymous

    In other words, the article tells us that political ads usually don’t tell the truth and that stations are not likely to tell us where the truth lies. That makes it next to impossible to make informed decisions about whom to vote for.

    And Poynter, which professes to care, leaves it be.

    One could be forgiven for thinking that “follow the money” has evolved from “investigate the money trail to enlighten the citizenry” to “follow whatever the money tells you to do”.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you for responding Ms. Powell.
    Please explain how an article published nine months before the election and is not even linked to in the article above fulfills Poynter’s mission helps the electorate less than two months before the election. Are you saying that Poynter has fulfilled its mission of informing the electorate here? Are people supposed to remember what you published seven months ago?

    BTW, I think the article to which you linked is a good one, despite the fact that it is meant to help journalists and not the electorate.

    My point isn’t that Poynter hasn’t published other stories on this issue. My point is that Poynter reported what should be very important information for an organization with its stated mission and dropped the ball by reporting it in he-said fashion. Poynter had an opportunity here to show that it is serious about fulfilling its mission and didn’t follow through.

  • http://www.facebook.com/1traciep Tracie Powell

    Nate, Poynter has published other stories on this issue. I began writing about it in February. http://www.poynter.org/latest-news/making-sense-of-news/164218/what-journalists-need-to-know-about-super-pac-ads/

  • Anonymous

    From Poynter’s Mission Statement:
    It stands for a journalism that informs citizens and enlightens public discourse. It carries forward Nelson Poynter’s belief in the value of independent journalism in the public interest.

    From the article above:
    “It is questionable whether citizens are any more knowledgeable about political candidates after seeing these ads…
    According to the Free Press report, 70 percent of the ads that aired in the first half of 2012 were negative, which have been shown to be an effective type of political advertising.
    …broadcasters in the swing state markets examined in its report “devoted little to no air time to fact-checking claims made in the ads, and the stations spent no time investigating the organizations that paid for the ads.”

    For an organization interested in its mission stated above, this should be a blockbuster story and worthy of further investigation. Especially after expending so many resources supposedly showing its concern with the principles of journalism by vilifying monologist Mike Daisey.

    But, I guess then they might need to think about the appropriateness of having the very MediaWire that is supposed to enlighten people about journalism being sponsored by KochFacts.com