Home > Uncategorized > REACTION 3: Political Communication Scholars & the Future of Adwatches

REACTION 3: Political Communication Scholars & the Future of Adwatches

It is interesting to be writing our grad responses to the adwatch and “soft money” articles the same week that the undergraduates are writing about the responsibility of the press. It is SO good to see that they watched Bill Moyers for class. If there is one journalist who takes seriously the social responsibility theory of the press, it is Bill Moyers. His retirement from his PBS show was an enormous loss for our democracy. I agree with Missy that the press, due to economic pressures, is generally not engaging in a level of critique that is responsible. They have fallen down on being the third estate. But PBS has, at times, been an exception, as have some journalists featured on Link TV and Free Speech TV. I also find that the local program “Views of the News” on Wednesday evenings from 6:00 to 7:00 on KBIA (featuring our own J School faculty) provides an excellent critique of news coverage of a variety of topics, including politics.

I think the question for me is, if citizens were exposed to in-depth, thoughtful adwatches, in the style of Bill Moyers/PBS, and those adwatches engaged experts who understand not only the issues, but also the technical manipulation concerns that Tedesco, Kaid, & McKinnon (2000) discuss, would those adwatches be effective? Would they help the democratic process? I know that I would like to think that the answer would be yes. Jamieson & Cappella (1997) are quite convincing in their critique of previous studies that found counter-productive effects for adwatches, and make a crucial point that the adwatch needs to provide actual critique, not just reinforce the candidate messaging. However, if money pressures (or partisan slant, a la Fox) bias coverage away from actual critique, perhaps it would be better for the press not to be trying to do adwatches at all. Adwatches that end up being nothing more than reinforcement of candidate messages could do more harm than good, not only in supporting undesirable candidates (at times), but more importantly, in providing a kind of desensitizing or inoculation effect to those who are exposed to them, making real adwatches possibly less effective. That is, if people think that adwatches do not provide useful information, they may not “tune in” to them, even if they actually are good critiques.

Last semester in Communication Theory, I was struck by Anderson’s plea (at the end of his textbook on Comn Theory) that communication researchers need to do more than stay in our academic silos. Instead, we need to risk academic disapprobation and make our work accessible to those beyond the walls of the academy. Perhaps it is time for political communication researchers to be doing adwatches, or at the very least, following up on Tedesco, Kaid, & McKinnon’s suggestion regarding working to get journalists to implement consistent methodology when they do adwatches. It may be, as Missy pointed out, that corporate media are not going to be the home for such critical work, and instead we need to turn to the internet. Maybe political communication scholars could create our own version of something like Media Matters or politifact, where we could do real scholarship, only in the vernacular, and try to contribute real critique (and distribute it more widely) in service to the democratic process.

I agree with Missy that all of this becomes exponentially more important in the face of the growing influence of soft money in our elections, particularly in light of the Citizens United decision. Given that soft-money sponsored ads escape the backlash effects of candidate-sponsored ads (as seen in both Shen & Wu and Pfau, et al), that seems to me all the more urgent reason for adwatches to check their accuracy. Candidates are accountable. Groups sponsoring ads, unless clearly identifiable, are not nearly so. The average citizen is not going to go to SourceWatch and check on every group. But someone needs to be doing so, and spreading the word about what they find. Maybe we political communication (and science) scholars are up for the task?

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