Media Project Tracks Ads, Analyzes Effects on Elections
In an effort to build name recognition, the newly formed Wesleyan Media Project is tracking and analyzing state and federal political advertisements airing on television and making their findings public. Under the leadership of Assistant Professor of Government Erika Franklin Fowler, the program is striving to fill a niche this election season, following the disbandment of the University of Wisconsin Advertising Project in 2008, which analyzed political advertisements from across the country.
In its first press release in late September, based on data through Sept. 15, the project made observations regarding the effects of the United States Supreme Court case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which holds that the First Amendment does not allow for the limitation of corporate funding in political broadcasts.
“Speculation was that interest groups were going to take over American elections,” Fowler said. “At least in the data through Sept. 15, it really was not the case. We’re seeing increased volume, increased spending, that is driven primarily by candidates and interest groups, but if you look at the distribution of airings, the interest groups are not overwhelmingly dominating the landscape.”
Currently the only research project of its type, the media project is co-directed by Fowler, Professor Michael Franz at Bowdoin College, and Professor Travis Ridout at Washington State University. All three are former graduate students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where they were under the tutelage of Professor Ken Goldstein, the former director of the Wisconsin Media Project.
The Wesleyan Media Project employs students from all three colleges to assist in analyzing data.
Although the project is a collaborative effort with Bowdoin and Washington State, Wesleyan, as the lead institution, receives funding for the project from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Sunlight Foundation and allocates funds across the three schools. The project was initially pitched to Bowdoin as well, but ended up at Wesleyan, which will lead and host the project.
“Wesleyan was particularly interested in the project in part because it goes right in line with Wesleyan’s goals for 2020: getting our name out there, increasing our name recognition and so on,” Fowler said. “It seemed to me like a natural fit and the administration agreed, and so Wesleyan agreed to provide the project a home.”
The data used for the project is obtained primarily from the Campaign Media Analysis Group (CMAG), a subdivision of Kantar Media.Kantar provides frequency information, cost estimates, and video for each advertisement.
The group has advertisement detectors in every market nationwide, which listen for sound wave patterns. While both journalists and academics seek such data, access to it is restricted and can be costly.
“This data is not available publicly because it’s proprietary data, and it’s worth a lot of money,” Fowler said. “You can imagine campaigns, parties, individuals, if they have the funds, could purchase this data. It’s important especially if you’re a campaign strategist to both know what your opponents are doing and what the other party organizations are doing.”
The Wesleyan Media Project does extensive analysis of the information they receive, including tracking sponsors, checking nonprofit status, and coding. Researchers involved with coding provide content analysis, watching videos and answering questions in an online system. Students with more quantitative skills pore through the data sets to analyze and quality-check them.
The questions that students answer are designed to be objective, preventing any biases.
“Especially in the Northeast, Wesleyan does have a reputation for being on the liberal side,” Fowler said. “As political scientists, we value our nonpartisan nature, especially those of us who study political campaigns. We all bring some sort of biases to the table, but the project is very much nonpartisan. We ask our students to take off their partisan hats when they’re answering questions.”
By participating, students have the opportunity to participate in significant research relevant to the current political environment.
“I was excited because it is the first politically-oriented job I’ve had,” wrote Joel Baxter, a political science major graduating this December from Washington State University, in an e-mail to The Argus. “It makes it so much easier to work on something you care about, and can see how your work is contributing to something bigger.”
A total of 16 members comprise the Wesleyan, Bowdoin, and Washington State teams working on the project. Approximately 120 hours of student labor goes into the project each week, with each student working10 to 20 hours per week.
“Frankly, the Project could be a full-time job if you let it,” Fowler said. “Between analyzing the data as it comes in and then talking to reporters at the backend. I’m obviously doing other things here. This isn’t my primary job, but it’s certainly something that I believe in and something that I believe is valuable to both my teaching and to the research that goes on at Wesleyan.”
While all the student positions for the current election cycle are filled, there are other ways students can get involved with the project. After the cycle is over, a conference open to journalists and the public will be hosted at Wesleyan to discuss the findings.
“We hope that we get a wide student attendance for that,” Fowler said. “It will be the culmination of the project here—our findings here, the things that we know, what we can talk about in terms of the effects of Citizens United.”
The project is currently applying for funds from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and other organizations for future election cycles.
“We’d like to be around for the long haul,” Fowler said. “It’s a fabulous project both for Wesleyan as an institution and also for Wesleyan students. The resources we bring to the table are phenomenal. My hope is that students in all of my classes, but not just my classes, can take advantage of the resources here.”