It’s a politician’s election-year nightmare: Your opponent’s media team discovers that years ago you were driving while impaired and ran over your neighbor’s cat. Worse, you used your political connections to avoid a sobriety test and got off.
“We had to go with that,” says senior Drew Henderson, who helped develop a decidedly negative campaign video using the damaging information.
Fortunately for the candidate, the feline felony was fake. The minute-long piece was part of a political media simulation for Jeremy Mayer’s GOVT 412 Politics and Mass Media course. Randomly assigned teams each created three videos—positive, comparative, and of course, negative—for imaginary Congressional candidates running for office in Northern Virginia districts.
The candidates were real people (but not real politicians) who agreed to have their character assassinated, as well as being built up by their own media operatives. All the scandals—and there were 30 to choose from—were fictitious.
The students, many of them government majors, plunged into researching the myriad minutiae that is local politics as well as learning how to shoot and edit video, a first for many of them.
“At first we thought we had bitten off more than we could chew,” says Henderson, a senior government and international politics major.
“What I like about the course is it reshuffles the established hierarchy among the students,” says Mayer, who first started teaching a version of the course in 1999 at Kalamazoo College. He has since adapted it for undergraduates at Mason.
“Students get excited [about the class] because the rules have changed. They’re being graded on creativity, not writing papers and taking exams. This is a way of thinking about politics that speaks to them.”
Equipment and advice from Mason’s Student Technology Assistance and Research (STAR) Lab and a class-long clinic by Mason film and video alumnus Nathan McFarland helped, says senior Re’Necia Coda, who enjoyed the multidisciplinary aspects of the course.
“The class was new and innovative,” Coda says. “You had to learn about the incumbent, the district, and what issues resonate.”
Insights from the class changed how junior Katie Garay looks at real campaign ads.
“I’m aware now how they’re intended to affect me,” she says. “I’m definitely more analytical.”