The Wesleyan Media Project, co-directed by Assistant Professor of Government Erika Fowler, has received coverage more than 400 times from sources across the country – more media hits than Wesleyan typically gets in one year. The project’s findings have been discussed in over 50 online news articles and covered by newspapers from The New York Times to Business Week.
“We were cited last week by Karl Rove,” said Matt Motta ’13, a student working with Professor Fowler. “He summed up what I think was one of our most important findings, which is that even though there hasn’t been a general increase in the volume of negative ads, there has been an increase of negativity in those ads, and a lot of them have been coming from liberals.”
Professor Fowler clarified Karl Rove’s quote, explaining that the proportion of negativity has increased over previous cycles, so when looking from 2000 to 2010, this election cycle was overwhelmingly the most negative year as defined through campaign ads.
The findings are a result of hours and hours of research; according to Motta, the student researchers watch electoral campaign ads, checking off boxes indicating which topics are mentioned, such as health care, foreign policy, or a politician. Fowler said she and her fellow researchers are particularly interested in measuring negativity and ‘attacking.’
“There are different ways you can ‘attack’,” Fowler said. “It can be policy-based, personal characteristics, or both.”
The research showed a disparity between the two parties’ methods of attacking.
“Republicans were attacking more frequently than Democrats were, but Democrats were focusing more on personal attacks,” Fowler said. “Republicans were focusing on more issue-based attacks. Those strategies make sense in a year when the climate doesn’t favor a certain party, a.k.a. the Democrats. Ads are becoming more negative in general, and they are both talking more about personal characteristics.”
Professor Fowler, however, said she is not particularly surprised by these results—she and her colleagues knew that this election cycle was going to be competitive and negative. There has been a general increase in the negativity of ads since 2000, with a decrease after 9/11 in the 2002 and 2004 campaigns.
Nonetheless, Fowler’s interest has been piqued by other findings.
“The big story this year is the fact that almost 1.5 billion dollars were spent since Jan. 1 in the top three races in the country [gubernatorial, house, and senate], and nearly a billion of that was spent between Sept. 1 and election day,” Fowler said. “There has been a phenomenal increase in the volume and spending in advertising.”
Even with such a large increase in the money put into advertising, Fowler was surprised that more money was not spent due to a recent change in campaign finance laws. In January of 2010, the Citizen United Case ruled it unconstitutional not to allow interested groups to contribute as much as they like to election campaigns. However, instead of out-of-control spending, there was only a minimal increase in the donations to the senate and gubernatorial races, and only slightly more in the house.
“I’m especially intrigued by the fact that interest groups weren’t more involved,” Fowler said. “The expectation was that Citizens United would really open the floodgates, as we would have an election dominated by outside interest. That’s not the case in the aggregate. It may be the case in individual races, but even in individual races we are seeing a lot of ‘typical’ actors – candidates and parties – and not a much larger proportion of interest group money.”
As of yet, the Wesleyan Media Project has not related their findings to election results, as they are still inputting data from this election year. Nonetheless, the research already has important implications.
“We got a lot of media attention from pretty big media outlets,” said Emma Lewis ’11, another student researcher. “It’s something the public is interested in knowing about. They know what’s happening in campaigns because they see what’s happening on their TVs, and every election cycle they say, ‘This is the most negative one ever,’ but when you have the actual information it’s more helpful to see what real changes are being made, especially with the campaign finance laws.”
The next big item on the Wesleyan Media Project’s agenda is a meeting on December 2 with a press conference with all of the researchers in attendance and public forum on December 3.
“On Dec. 2, we will be having a post-election meeting with high-profile journalists,” Fowler said. “We will have a public event with our post-election wrap-up, our most recent analyses. It will be open to the public, especially Wesleyan students. We’ll have a set of academics who specialize in campaign elections and advertising, and we have confirmed participants from Politico and NPR.”
Professor Fowler plans to continue the project in other ways, as well.
“In addition to election ads, we will be looking at issue ads that air throughout the year,” Fowler said. “Also, the Wisconsin Advertising Project has been tracking ads since 2000, but didn’t have the funds to purchase the 2006 data set. Next year, we will go back to those 2006 ads, the big missing piece.”
She hopes that the Wesleyan Media Project does not just stop there.
“Looking forward, we are finding ways to extend the project,” she said. “I have done extensive research on news media coverage of advertising and also some preliminary work on YouTube advertising, both of which would be natural extensions of the ad tracking.”