Media, Money & Elections: 2014 Philly Political Media Ad Watch

Posted on October 15, 2014 by Roger Macdonald

Philadelphia-region Political Media Ad Watch is a pilot project that allows citizens and journalists to go online to search every political message in the Philly television market, compare all the ads from a single sponsor (sample: Tom Wolf for Governor) —positive and negative—and trace back who is paying for those ads.

She’s Dishonest!
He’s in Bed with an Accused Mobster!
This is what television audiences in Pennsylvania and Southern New Jersey are hearing a lot of this season. And it’s not Judge Judy or the Jerry Springer Show. Nope. It’s the deeply disturbing reality television show of our nation’s mid-term elections.

Dark accusations run back-to-back with heartwarming assurances of compassion.  All financed by increasingly unfettered flows of cash from ever more veiled donors.

Voters have a right to know who’s paying for these messages. And this flood of commercials begs a few critical questions for our democracy:

  • With so much heat, where can citizens find the light they need to make thoughtful choices?
  • Are the local media, many of whom make big bucks on election advertising, doing a good job giving voters the information and context they need to make sound decisions on Election Day?
  • Can we establish a baseline of metrics to evaluate the performance of local media during elections?

The project is a collaboration between the Internet ArchiveSunlight Foundation, Philadelphia’s Committee of Seventy (a non-partisan government watchdog), University of Delaware’s Center for Community Research & Service and the Linguistic Data Consortium at the University of Pennsylvania. It immediately enables local media to do a better job sifting between fact and fiction in political messaging and revealing financial sources of political influence.

In the coming year, University of Delaware researchers will sift project data to answer some basic questions about how local media is serving the public:

  • To what extent, if any, do local television news broadcasts examine the claims that are made in the political ads that appear on the newscasts?
  • Do the broadcasts cover the same issues that are the subject of political ads? If so, which issues are covered, which issues are not covered?
  • How much time is devoted to that coverage? Where does that coverage appear in the newscasts?

And in the long term, our pioneering work in the Philadelphia-region will help us create an affordable and technically scalable model to answer these questions in local markets nationwide leading up to the 2016 elections.

One of the exciting features of this project is that it brings cutting edge technology together with campaign finance expertise and grassroots good-government advocates in Philadelphia to potentially provide vastly greater understanding on who funds our political system and how they influence campaigns on the ground. Each of these organizations by themselves have a strong potential impact—together, we have the ability to amplify the rich, revealing information that can move voters and sway debate toward better outcomes.

What We’re Doing

The Internet Archive is recording, indexing for search and presenting online Philadelphia TV Market Area television news—which includes 22 counties in Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey; indexing for search all political ads therein; creating an interface for trained volunteers to identify and tag political advertising; joining indexed ads with sponsor information databases; making news and ads searchable, quotable and embeddable; capturing and presenting, in a full-text searchable database, much of the region’s Web media ecosystem..

The Sunlight Foundation is training volunteer political ad sponsorship coders, creating adaptations of the Influence Explorer interface and database to include real time Pennsylvania state campaign data; developing specialized optical character recognition algorithms for extracting Public Inspection File disclosures on sponsorship for TV political ad buys on its Political Ad Sleuth database; conducting outreach to journalists and others for their collaboration and use of resources for stories; integrating ad sponsor data into related Sunlight Foundation data tools and API’s; working with the Internet Archive to sync up sponsorship data with the actual ads in the same interface.

The Committee of Seventy is organizing a team of volunteers; acting as liaison with Philadelphia-region civic organizations; conducting outreach to area press; and providing guidance on issues and political candidates to track.

The University of Delaware’s Center for Community Research & Service at the School of Public Policy & Administration will conduct an analysis of the broadcast news programs in the Philadelphia television market, aired September 1 through Election Day, November 4.  After Election Day, the University team will conduct content analysis to address the research questions above and publish findings next year.

The Linguistic Data Consortium at the University of Pennsylvania is providing technical support and advice regarding the Internet Archive’s broadcast monitoring in the Philadelphia area.

Project Resources

• View all identified political TV ads
• Watch video tour guide to using Philly-region TV news search• Search just Philadelphia content from the TV News Archive
• Philadelphia stations’ political ad sponsor reports to FCC
• Archived Philadelphia web media ecosystem sites (key word searchable)

Project Advisors

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, the Elizabeth Ware Packard Professor of Communication at the Annenberg School for Communication; and Walter and Leonore Annenberg Director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

Travis N. Ridout, the Thomas S. Foley Distinguished Professor of Government and Public Policy and Associate Professor in the school of Politics, Philosophy and Public at Washington State University; and co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project.

David Westin, former president of ABC News, Founding CEO of NewsRight, a digital start-up spun off from the AP; and now Principal of Witherbee Holdings, LLC


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