Distortions of candidates' images and records through video tricks and truth manipulation are on the rise throughout the country, says a researcher.
In California, a candidate's image is "morphed" back and forth into the photo of the convicted killer of Polly Klaas.
In Virginia, a photo of a candidate's head is digitally placed into a photo to hurt his image.
And in many television commercials around the country, including Kansas, candidates' photographs -- and their political records and views -- are manipulated by their opponents to put them in the worst light possible.
With the election a little more than a week away, candidates are bombarding the airwaves with slickly produced TV commercials designed to hurt their opponent.
"My view is that negative advertising catches public attention, but in the end has a negative effect on the candidates who resort to it," said Mike Kautsch, dean of Kansas University's journalism school.
The public is looking for meaningful dialogue, Kautsch said.
When negative advertising appears, the voters often slide into deeper cynicism about the leadership abilities of the candidates, he said.
"And the result seems to me to be a decline in voter participation -- fewer people go to the polls," he said. "If two candidates use negative advertising to dispute one another's character and confidence, many of the voters say a plague on both of your houses, I'm not supporting either of you."
"Forrest Gump" tricks
Camera tricks and video manipulation are on the rise in political commercials across the country, says a University of Oklahoma researcher.
"The same kinds of video techniques that are used to entertain us in 'Forrest Gump' can be used to manipulate voters in political spots," said Lynda Lee Kaid, director of the Political Communication Center at OU.
Armed with a grant from the National Science Foundation, Kaid, who has studied political ads for 25 years, has been doing research for the last four years on video tricks used in political ads.
She said that 42 percent of the ads in 1992 were deliberately distorted. And early findings indicate the percentage is even higher for the 1996 campaign.
One technique is to change a color photograph to black and white and to make the opponent look more sinister or more undesirable, Kaid said.
OU researchers have also seen an increase in unattributed newspaper clippings and headlines used in commercials -- with candidates making up their own headlines and stories.
Some of the other technological manipulations are much more sophisticated, she said.
By altering the images, "you can change someone's looks so they are frowning instead of smiling," she said.
In a U.S. Senate campaign in Virginia, John Warner, the Republican incumbent, had a commercial designed to make it look like his Democratic opponent was cavorting with liberals, Kaid said.
She said the head of Warner's Democratic opponent, Mark Warner, was digitally placed on the body of Sen. Chuck Robb, so that it made the Democrat appear to be shaking hands with Doug Wilder, a former Democratic governor, and with President Bill Clinton.
The retouched photo would probably have gone unnoticed, except that the original photo was well known and had been in the Washington Post, Kaid said.
"It was a very blatant example," she said.
Another recent example in California "morphed," or digitally blended, a candidate's features into the features of Richard Allen Davis, the convicted killer of 12-year-old Polly Klaas.
Kaid said several California conservative congressional candidates were using Davis in their ads to as a way to criticize anti-death penalty views of their liberal opponents.
According to the Washington, D.C. "Roll Call," The Polly Klass Foundation blasted the exploitation of the crime for political purposes, saying creating the ads, "is beneath the level of concern and professionalism that we expect from our political leaders."
Kaid said some video tricks are more obvious and cartoon-like than morphing-- such as making your opponent's nose grow to show he is lying.
"We kind of take these things for granted in entertainment and movies, but we don't think about these techniques being used to manipulate us in the political system," she said.
The tricks work
Kaid's research shows that the video tricks do influence voters.
She oversaw a study last week using a negative ad run by Republican Bob Dole against President Bill Clinton to see the effects of the video tricks.
Her researchers made a second version of the commercial and took out all of the technical video distortions, such as black and white photos of Clinton, unattributed newspaper clippings and computer graphics plastered over Clinton's image.
Two different test groups were shown the ads.
"People who saw the distortions were 25 percent more likely to vote for Dole and 29 percent less likely to vote for Clinton," she said.
However, that ad has been balanced out, because Clinton has been running similar negative TV spots against Dole, she said.
"Clinton is using more negative ads and more that have these kinds of distortions in them," she said.
A call for reform
Michael Hoeflich, dean of KU's law school, is calling for some sort of restrictions on what candidates can say about each other during the heat of a campaign.
"You never know who's telling the truth because who has the time and the resources to check out what they're saying?" Hoeflich said.
Hoeflich said he was recently traveling and was watching an early evening news program when what appeared to be a news flash appeared on the TV screen.
A woman who was in what appeared to be a newsroom started talking about one of the senatorial candidates from New Jersey being discovered as having mob ties. There was footage of the candidate slowly walking, Hoeflich said.
He said the commercial appeared to be an actual news flash, which he said was "outrageous."
He only learned it was a political ad after the regular news program resumed and the real news people on that program began talking about the ad.
Hoeflich said some regulations of political advertising are needed, just as laws were made to reform campaign finance practices.
"It seems to me where we've got a situation where American politics is being taken over by media consultants," Hoeflich said. "I really do think this is responsible for some people being soured on politics."
Some negative ads help
Lynn Hellebust, former chairman of Common Cause of Kansas, said he doesn't rate negative advertising that much of a problem.
"Lying and distortion is one thing," Hellebust said. "But simply raising questions about an opponent that are negative in nature, I don't see that as a problem."
Voters need to know where candidates are on the issues, their general philosophical leanings, what kind of a person they are, whether they are reliable and if they change when the political wind shifts, Hellebust said.
"You can't do that without being negative," he said. "The fact that you're raising questions about a person's performance and past votes is as valid as hell."
Many people are turned off by the ads because they don't like conflict, he said.
"I have a problem with the untruths and the half truths," he said. "Most of us, even the ones who pay close attention, don't have the information to evaluate what they say."
Hellebust said the content of the negative ad also is educational to the voter because it says something about the candidate making the charges.
"The impulse to start stretching the truth and get real nasty in the campaign comes at the end," he said. "It's a function of the tightness of the election."
Kautsch, KU's journalism dean, said some ads that compare and contrast the candidates are important.
"The form of negative campaigning that questions the judgment of an opponent in the course of performing public duty is tolerable," Kautsch said. "I think that there is a danger in that form of criticism only if the critic fails to include a fair statement of how he or she would have voted and why."
More watchdogs needed
Kautsch said that journalists must be watchdogs on what the candidates are saying about one another.
"Unfortunately, the news media don't have resources to scrutinize campaign claims the way that would help the public the most," he said.
One possibility is to encourage citizen groups, such as the League of Women Voters, to help scrutinize candidate claims through election campaigns, he said.