Thursday, October 23, 2008

Go Negative! It's Good For Us.

The grainy video. The eerie music. The slow-motion picture shots.

At about this time in the campaign, you could be getting to the point where you've had enough of the negative television ads.

In Missouri's three top races (Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General), all six major candidates are currently on the air with what could be considered a "negative ad."

But as Newsweek reports this week, there's not only nothing new about this --- but negative ads are also good for our democratic process. That's right, they are helpful to me (as a journalist) and you (as a citizen.)

First things first: According to Jon Krosnick of Stanford University, there's no evidence that negative ads keep people away from the polls on Election Day. In fact, some studies done show that, in races that bombarded people with negative ads, there was a slight uptick in turnout.

How can that be possible? Our brains are wired to respond to negativity. "When voters dislike a candidate, they are more motivated to go out and vote," to keep that lying cheating reprobate out office.

But more importantly, negative ads have an important role in defining the campaigns we follow and helping us make decisions about our options. As quoted in the Oct. 20th Newsweek, John Greer of Vanderbilt University believes that "negativity plays an important and underappreciated role in democracies, in large part by presenting more, and more detailed information than positive ads do."

"And make no mistake about what may be the most valuable information voters glean from attack ads and mudslinging," writes Newsweek's Sharon Begley. "A sense of the candidate ("and I approved this message") who paid for them."

The data also shows that most attacks in ads are relevant. Vanderbilt's Greer analyzed a database of presidential ads from 1960 to 2000 and found that "personal attacks are flat . . . it's attacks on views that are rising." And, that's a good thing.

"Negative ads are more likely to be about the important issues of the day than positive ads. They can therefore "actually advance the debate, not undermine it," Greer said.

Positive ads with pictures of the candidates and their families really don't tell us much. They are more designed to sent us warm, positive feelings. Negative ads immediately send the opposition in overdrive, and motivates the press to "fact check." (We have a whole Truthwatch series at KY3.)

In the end, it keeps us all on our toes, and asking questions. Plus, we always learn more. "Obama says he's going to cut taxes for 95 percent of taxpayers, but McCain says Obama's plan will raise taxes for small businesses," explains Greer. "Because Obama is forced to respond to that, we learn more about his tax plan."

Finally, there's a lot of charges that get thrown around that if aren't completely false --- are very misleading. But this is also helpful, say the researchers.

"If an ad attacks an opponent with misinformation, which engaged voters can identify (through media coverage or their own research), what people learn from it is that this candidate is willing to lie and to get ahead," says Stanford's Krosnick.

So the next time you see Jay Nixon attack Kenny Hulshof or Sam Page slam Peter Kinder, don't wring your hands or roll your eyes --- use it as a learning experience.

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