On Friday, November 8, Barbara Allen, Carleton’s James Woodward Strong Professor of Political Science and the Liberal Arts, accepted the American Politics Group 2019 Richard E. Neustadt Book Prize. The prize was awarded to her latest book: Truth in Advertising? Lies in Political Advertising and How They Affect the Electorate, co-authored with Daniel Stevens, Professor of Politics at the University of Exeter.
Allen traveled to London to receive the award at a ceremony that she said was “very, very nice.” The prize was presented by Baroness Shirley Williams, a member of both houses of the British Parliament and Richard Neustadt’s widow. Allen was thrilled that she had read the book, and said that “she gave a passionate and empowering speech at the presentation. It is spectacular to have models of service such as she is.”
Allen began researching political advertising with the Carleton College Election Study in 2008. She had originally put together the study in 2000 to examine election news coverage. With John Sullivan, that year’s Benedict Distinguished Visiting Professor, and Stevens, then a graduate student at the University of Minnesota, Allen led her students from all of her classes in a comprehensive content analysis of four local news stations. In 2004, Professor Greg Marfleet joined in, enlisting students from his Political Research Methods class, but the study otherwise remained the same.
Then, Allen said, “in 2008, we totally lost our minds.” Not only did the group start studying national and cable news channels along with the local ones, but they began an entirely new analysis of more than 700 political advertisements. This was groundbreaking work. Never before had a study analyzed both the sound and imagery of campaign ads, fact-checking them along with looking for misleading video editing that distorted the narrative.
Allen credited a number of student research assistants in her book, including Jeff Berg ’14, who co-wrote a chapter after spending three summers on the project. “I joined the project the summer after my first year, primarily to translate Spanish language political ads,” said Berg. Although I wasn’t considering a major in Political Science (or even doing research at all) at that point, I really enjoyed working on the project, and Barbara graciously allowed me to continue doing so following that summer. My responsibilities grew from there—by the time I graduated, I had content analyzed hundreds of ads, conducted statistical analysis, and presented our results at various conferences. I’m deeply proud to have been a part of it.” Berg ended up majoring in Political Science and Cognitive Science, and is now pursuing a PhD at New York University.
Allen said that many more of the students who worked on the project went into “really cool political jobs,” including Tommy Walker ’08, who now works for Amy Klobuchar.
Carleton academic technologist Paula Lackie and her student group “the DataSquad” also helped with the research process. Lackie trained these students and guided Allen with data directly. According to Lackie, it was “exceptionally labor-intensive work of qualitative analysis,” but it was well worth it. “Without this kind of research,” she said, “we are at the whim of opinion. You can see where that’s gotten us so far.”
From Allen’s previous research on election coverage, she had expected to find some lies in the 700 advertisements, but “mainly ‘not the whole story’ mistruths.” Instead, she said, “there were some things that were so outrageously false that it was just shocking.” On average, every advertisement had two deviations from the truth, with more in negative advertisements that targeted a candidate’s opponent, and in ads for candidates who trailed in the polls. Allen and her team found that the lies in any ad had the potential to seriously mislead voters, even those who were well-informed. The danger, according to Allen, is that “you can’t dislodge the lie” once it’s entered your mind.
Allen has published her findings in political science journals, but “in a journal article,” she said, “you don’t get to say a lot about the more fundamental problem.” Lies in political advertisements are dangerous enough, she thinks, that the courts should be “protecting political speech that is truthful.” Her book communicates this to an audience “beyond academics with an interest in political communications.”
Allen hopes that receiving the award will direct attention to the topic. “It will get the book into libraries,” she said. “I hope it will help spur conversations about ways we can have an effect.” Lackie agrees. “In an era of anti-intellectualism and anti-science,” she said, “it’s reassuring that someone is paying attention to evidence-based political writing. Ideally, they’ll apply what they’ve learned and spread the word to enlighten the more casual consumers of political messages.”
Meanwhile, Allen continues to analyze political news, this time from the 2016 election cycle. She is also currently working with students on a study to see if change in ownership of local broadcast stations, including stations that have been bought by right-wing media outlet Sinclair Broadcast Group, “have changed election news coverage in any significant way.”
Note: This article was was updated from the print version to fix the end of the last paragraph being truncated.