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Archive for April, 2012

From Ike to Obama: UNL project studies campaign ads’ evolution

Thursday, April 26th, 2012

Every four years, presidential candidates join us – regularly and repeatedly – in our living rooms for a quick chat. They pop in, 30 seconds at a time, for virtual campaign stops in the commercial breaks of our favorite TV shows, amid the evening news, even during time outs of sporting events.

Think back, and notable campaign advertisements that have flickered across television sets may come to mind: the uncompromising Willie Horton ad that helped sink Michael Dukakis in 1988; Ronald Reagan’s nostalgic and optimistic “Morning in America” spot from 1984; and LBJ’s haunting “Daisy Girl” commercial from twenty years earlier, with its ominous countdown and nuclear blast.

But how, on the whole, have presidential campaign ads changed in their six-decade run on the airwaves? Have they addressed different issues over time? Have they begun to represent a more diverse audience? Are they more forward-looking or reflective? Do party differences matter in issue choices and messages? And what might these trends portend for the 2012 presidential race and beyond?

To find answers to those questions, a team of UNL researchers has examined the evolution of national presidential campaign ads from 1952 to the present. They have spent months analyzing, categorizing and coding hundreds of the general-election commercials over the last 60 years. Now, with an eye on the 2012 presidential race, they’re opening that work up to the public.

The University of Nebraska Campaign Ads Project — UNeCAP for short — has assembled a vigorous dataset that notes a number of consistent ad characteristics: visual images, myths, emotion, evidence, issues, demographics, and many others. The group, consisting of Dana Griffin, assistant professor of political science; Damien Smith Pfister, assistant professor of communication studies; Marty Nader, a Ph.D candidate in political science; and Jessy Ohl, a Ph.D. student in communication studies; recently published the entire dataset online.

“Our hope is that scholars across the country can draw on this dataset to further the study of political communication from an interdisciplinary vantage point,” Pfister said. “Building a dataset has long been thought of as merely a prerequisite to research, but scholarly norms now recognize that the process of constructing datasets itself is a valuable mode of research.”

Early observations of the years of data have unveiled some interesting tendencies. UNeCAP researchers recently presented a content analysis at the Midwest Political Science Association conference in Chicago showing that, over time, presidential candidates have relied on more retrospective than prospective appeals in their advertisements. Candidates also are increasingly likely to attribute blame to past events than they are to take credit, and to forecast grimly what would happen if the opponent were to win rather than describe what they themselves would do if elected.

Also, candidates are decreasing the frequency with which they take positions on issues in ads, the researchers found. Instead, they’re progressively using campaign spots as a space to attribute policy positions to their opponent.

“Historically, in any given ad, voters ran about a 60 percent chance of encountering information about a candidates’ own issue positions and about a 30 percent chance of seeing issue positions attributed to the opponent,” Griffin said. “This pattern has changed significantly in the last decade, with 2008 being the first time that position-attribution outpaced position-taking.

“This rise of ‘other-centered’ campaign ads represent an important development in American politics, and it remains to be seen what impact this has on voters,” she said.

Another early analysis from UNeCAP found that for the most part, both Democrats and Republicans have tended to talk about thesame issues with roughly the same proportions. The issues on which the parties differ in their attentiveness are social programs, health care, education and employment; Democratic candidates talk about those issues more, but Republicans still give them considerable attention – it’s merely a difference in levels of attentiveness, which varies from election cycle to election cycle.

The project is funded by a Maude Hammond Fling Faculty Research Fellowship from the UNL Research Council.

In addition to being a source for scholarly research and publishing, the group expects the dataset to provide some perspective in this year’s campaign between President Obama and presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney. The UNeCAP weblog will analyze long-term campaign ad trends in the context of the 2012 election cycle and will serve as an interactive forum to discuss this year’s ads within a larger historical framework.

“When observers ask whether the substantive content, argumentative technique, visual style or other elements of an ad go beyond those used in previous campaigns, we’ll be able to say whether it’s been done before or not,” Griffin said.

The UNeCAP team (left to right): Jessy Ohl, Damien Pfister, Dana Griffin and Marty Nader. (Photo by Matthew Morehouse)

Contacts: Dana Griffin, assistant professor of political science, (402) 472-2341 or; Damien Smith Pfister, assistant professor of communication studies, (402) 472-2069 or

UNL space law expert: Asteroid mining plans call for improvement in legal framework

Thursday, April 26th, 2012

U.S. space entrepreneurs’ announced venture to launch robotic prospectors into space in hopes of extracting water and precious metals from asteroids generated its share of excitement this week – but it comes amid a vague legal landscape that could complicate their plans, an international space law expert and UNL professor said.

The applicable legal system, both in terms of U.S. and international law, must be improved and expanded before any space-mined products are brought back to Earth to market sell, said Frans von der Dunk, professor of space law at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and an international expert in the field.

“Neither the pubic interests, ranging from security, safety and the environment to protecting Neil Armstrong’s footsteps, nor the interests of the company in securing its investments are properly protected,” he said. “Consequently, there is no legal certainty that those activities would not become seriously challenged.”

On Tuesday, plans were unveiled for Planetary Resources Inc., a company founded by Peter Diamandis and Eric Anderson and financed by Google co-founder and CEO Larry Page and chairman Eric Schmidt. Planetary Resources expects to launch robotic prospectors within two years. The firm hopes to begin extracting water and precious metals from asteroids within the next decade.

If those daring plans succeed, von der Dunk said, it would create its fair share of confusion about mining rights in space – from who owns what to how business interests beyond Earth’s orbit would be specifically protected.

He cited the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which forms the basis of international space law and to which all space-faring nations are a party. The treaty says that outer space constitutes a “global commons.” This means that extraterrestrial bodies can never be part of one country such as the United States, which therefore means that U.S. laws to protect public or private business interests likely cannot be applied.

The problem, von der Dunk said, is that specific international legal parameters have not been sufficiently established to protect legitimate public or private concerns beyond very general, vague considerations.

“This prompts several questions: What rights of protection would the mining company have against others wishing to ‘intrude,’ given that a global commons is in a principled fashion open to everyone?” Von der Dunk said. “And, who is going to be held liable – and to what extent – when mining activities cause damage to other space activities or are harmed by them?”

A possible legal solution may be rooted in a comparable legal scenario in how different countries have dealt with deep seabed mining, he said.

Von der Dunk said the United States could ensure that in its license to be granted to any prospective U.S. space-mining operator those public parameters would be sufficiently protected, as it has done with seabed mining. The United States has licensed national companies to mine seabeds, which are also outside of individual national jurisdictions, but the question of international acceptance would remain without a more detailed international framework.

The legal issues are relevant and imminent, von der Dunk said. The space entrepreneurs showed how just how relevant and imminent when they announced their plans.

“If both Planetary Resources and the public at large can benefit from these plans, if legal certainty should accompany the audacity of the business plan, then the relevant players should get their legal act together, both internationally and nationally,” he said.

Contact: Frans von der Dunk, UNL’s Harvey & Susan Perlman Alumni and Othmer Professor of Space Law: .

UNL expert alert: Nebraska legislature’s veto override to provide prenatal care benefits for illegal immigrants

Wednesday, April 18th, 2012

It was a busy final day in the Nebraska Legislature today, as senators voted to restore taxpayer-funded prenatal care benefits for illegal immigrants, overriding an earlier veto by Republican Gov. Dave Heineman. The governor argued the state should not spend tax dollars to provide care to women who are in the country illegally, while supporters and medical experts said a lack of prenatal care could lead to birth complications and developmental problems that cost the state far more than the expense of providing care to women.

Beth Burkstrand-Reid of the University of Nebraska College of Law is an expert in how the law intersects with reproductive rights and women’s health, and has been following the debate at the statehouse closely. Check out her Twitter feed for her quick insights on the override.

Prof. Burkstrand-Reid can be reached at 402-472-3158 or

UNL expert alert: FDA orders state to surrender lethal-injection drug

Wednesday, April 18th, 2012

The Associated Press reports today that federal authorities have ordered Nebraska to turn over its supply of a lethal injection drug. The Nebraska Department of Corrections and the Nebraska Attorney General’s office confirmed today that they had recently received letters from the FDA requesting the drug, sodium thiopental, be turned over. The order follows a federal judge’s ruling last month that the FDA wrongly allowed other states to import the drug from foreign suppliers.

Eric Berger, assistant professor at the University of Nebraska College of Law, is an expert in constitutional law, constitutional history, public policy and statutory interpretation. In his days as a practicing attorney,  he dealt with a number of cases on lethal injection.

Prof. Berger offers these initial thoughts:

Nebraska’s failure to follow federal law in procuring a drug for its lethal injection procedure parallels the story in many states, which have tried to implement these procedures without sufficient appreciation of their complications.”

Several states with lethal injection on the books have failed to assemble an expert team to design a viable, safe procedure to execute people.  Without an expert team that understands potential complications, problems are going to arise.”

Reach Assistant Professor of Law Eric Berger at 402-472-1251 or

Study of emancipation documents reveals rare look into slaves’ lives

Tuesday, April 10th, 2012

More than eight months before the Emancipation Proclamation broke the bonds of slavery across the South, a much more singularly focused experiment in equality was playing out in the country’s capital. The Compensated Emancipation Act, signed in April 1862, ordered all slaves in the District of Columbia to be freed.

It was the first time the U.S. government had officially liberated any group of slaves — and unlike the Emancipation Proclamation, it permitted their former masters to petition the government for compensation in exchange for their slaves’ freedom.

Though controversial, the act produced exceptionally rare documentation of the era: reimbursement petitions that showed the names, ages, histories and descriptions of an entire community of 3,000 African Americans.

As the 150th anniversary of the Compensated Emancipation Act approaches, University of Nebraska-Lincoln scholars have transcribed hundreds of the petitions and have published digital versions at Civil War Washington, an interdisciplinary digital research project that studies life in the nation’s capital during the pivotal period. The documents are viewable here.

“Slaves at this time were generally anonymous,” said Kenneth Winkle, UNL’s Sorensen Professor of American History and co-director of the project. “In the 1860 Census, for example, Southerners objected to providing their slaves’ names as if it would make them more real, more human.

“Now, with these petitions, they have documented lives that we can interpret, study and share with scholars, students and the public. We can tell their story, which has been largely overlooked. And it is a remarkable story.”

Winkle will take part in an April 11 commemoration of the act’s anniversary at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. The UNL historian will speak about the importance of the petitions in elevating understanding of emancipation in real, human terms.

Winkle and UNL’s Kenneth Price, Hillegass University Professor of American Literature; Susan Lawrence, associate professor of history; Elizabeth Lorang, research assistant professor of English, and others have been poring through the documents and today have about 200 of the roughly 1,000 petitions incorporated into Civil War Washington. The act’s official 150th anniversary is April 16.

The petitions, Winkle said, paint a fuller portrait of who the District’s slaves were, how they lived and how slavery and emancipation changed their lives. They also contain difficult truths — because the forms were used to establish a slave’s value for compensation, they share physical details that often underscore the brutality of slavery.

“They can be, at points, horrible to read,” Winkle said. “And their physical descriptions are just one example of what they went through. These documents show in real, human terms what slavery did to people, and then, what freedom would mean when they were released from that inhuman servitude.”

Price, who co-directs UNL’s Center for Digital Research in the Humanities, said the addition of the petitions to Civil War Washington enriches the project by unearthing new understandings of the era’s effect on the city and Washington’s transformation into the symbolic center of the Union and the nation.

“Washington, D.C., was a laboratory of democracy, where Congress had chosen to take a more aggressive hand,” Price said. “Those who supported the radical Republican agenda of the day had the ability to push through, without the hurdle of a state legislature, experiments they wanted to see play out locally before it spread nationally. This was one of their most profound experiments.”

The petitions highlight a number of new features at Civil War Washington, which also include a refreshed design, a new mapping application, a new project database, improved and expanded content from the Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion and new newspaper content. More than 15 UNL faculty, staff and students currently contribute to the project.

The Compensated Emancipation Act project was made possible through a three-year, $220,000 National Endowment for the Humanities grant to examine how race, slavery and emancipation affected the capital during the war.

“I believe there will be an outpouring of interest and scholarship once these petitions are more accessible to the public,” Winkle said.

Contact: Ken Winkle, professor of history, (402) 472-5911 or

Coverage: Chronicle of Higher Education |

Discovery may lead to significantly more efficient method of data storage

Friday, April 6th, 2012

Alexei Gruverman (left) with Haidong Lu, Gruverman’s graduate student and the lead author on the paper.

A team led by University of Nebraska-Lincoln physicist Alexei Gruverman in collaboration with researchers in Spain and at the University of Wisconsin has discovered a significantly more efficient method of data storage that offers great promise for the future of technology.

Gruverman’s research on electronic materials is done at the nanoscale, where objects exhibit unexpected chemical and physical properties. One nanometer is equal to one billionth of a meter. Central to his research is the scanning probe microscopy technique which is based on exerting highly localized mechanical, electrical or magnetic influence on an object by using a tiny physical probe and measuring the object’s response. The technique works much like a person’s sense of touch, Gruverman said.

“If you are in a dark room and want to find out whether the surface of this desk is smooth or rough, solid or soft what do you do?” he said, pointing to his desktop. “You touch it with your finger, press a bit and scan with your finger and feel the response.”

Similarly, the tip of the probe — whose radius measures about 10 nanometers and is too tiny to be seen by the naked eye — can scan a surface and offer researchers feedback. The probe also can be used to electrically change the local properties of ferroelectric materials, which are important electronic materials used in memory devices. The change that occurs is similar to what happens when magnetic materials are remagnetized by a magnetic field. By applying an electric potential to the probe, a nanoscale-size bit of electrical information can be stored in the ferroelectric material. This principle is central to data storage, like in hard disk drives.

To date, researchers have relied on the electrical voltage to store information. However, Gruverman’s team found that the same bit could be written simply by pressing harder against the ferroelectric material’s surface. In a sense and in this case, the probe’s needle works much like a nanoscopic typewriter in its ability to write data in a very specific area on a ferroelectric film and leave data behind without damaging the surface. That finding makes the research team the first to demonstrate that mechanical force can be used to change an area’s polarization.

“It’s a completely voltage-free switching of polarization, which is what makes the results of this research unique,” Gruverman said.

The finding is groundbreaking because it opens up a new way to store data significantly more densely than has previously been available.

While Gruverman is hesitant to say such a finding could pave the way to a new generation of data storage devices like computers and cell phones, whose production ultimately is at the mercy of many other factors, it does establish the scientific basis that makes it possible, he said.

The team’s findings were published April 5 in the journal Science and includes Gruverman’s graduate student, Haidong Lu, as a lead author. Other collaborators included a group of Spanish researchers led by Gustau Catalan and the team led by Chang-Beom Eom from the University of Wisconsin.

At the time of their discovery, Gruverman and other UNL researchers were engaged in a separate study supported in part by the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Basic Energy Sciences, Division of Materials Sciences and Engineering. Related research also receives funding from UNL’s Materials Research Science and Engineering Center, which is part of a nationwide network funded by the National Science Foundation that’s designed to support interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary materials research and education of the highest quality while addressing fundamental problems in science and engineering that are important to society.

Gruverman said his team hopes to build on this discovery by investigating other possible applications.

– Jean Ortiz Jones, University Communications

UNL in the national news, March 2012

Thursday, April 5th, 2012

National media outlets featured and cited UNL sources on a number of topics in the past month. Appearances included:

Dennis Alexander, electrical engineering and mechanical and materials engineering, was quoted March 12 by The Associated Press about the extent of the threat of a nuclear plant fire at Fort Calhoun. The story appeared in hundreds of media outlets around the country.

Michael Fromm, agronomy and horticulture and Director of UNL’s Center for Biotechnology, had his and colleagues’ research into plants’ ability to remember drought featured by United Press International on March 15. The story appeared in dozens of media outlets around the country.

Jason Head, Earth and atmospheric sciences, was featured in an April 1 special on the Smithsonian Channel, “Titanoboa: Monster Snake.” Associated coverage in March appeared in outlets from Smithsonian Magazine to the International Business Times to USA TODAY to The Associated Press, among others.

Ari Kohen, political science, was quoted in the Christian Science Monitor on March 29 about why a good public apology is so hard to find. He also had his blog Terrible Apologies featured at The Dish by Andrew Sullivan.

The National Drought Mitigation Center appeared in several outlets in March, including Bloomberg News’ report on La Nina patterns in the United States, which appeared in several media outlets across the world.

John Stansbury, civil engineering, was quoted in a March 19 story at discussing the possibility of a spill from the Keystone XL pipeline.

Susan Swearer, school psychology, appeared in dozens of media outlets in early March following her appearance at Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation launch on Feb. 29. Highlights included coverage by The Associated Press, Slate, The San Jose Mercury News, The Huffington Post and others. On March 27, she appeared on “Anderson,” a daytime syndicated talk show hosted by Anderson Cooper, to discuss anti-bullying techniques.

Mike Wagner, political science, was quoted by The Associated Press on March 1 about Bob Kerrey returning to Nebraska to run for his former U.S. Senate seat. He was quoted by AP on March 11 about the prospects for term limits and salary increases for legislators at the statehouse. On March 22, he was quoted by the Christian Science Monitor about the politics of the Keystone XL pipeline in Nebraska.

Matthew Waite, journalism, appeared in several reports about the rise of drones in the United States. Highlights included the Washington Times, American Public Media’s Marketplace, the Times of London, the UK’s Daily Mail and The Globalist from Italy.

Andrew Wedeman, political science, was featured in a Q&A with the Wall Street Journal about China’s corruption paradox on March 26.

J. Allen Williams Jr., sociology, was quoted by The Philadelphia Inquirer on March 7 about his and colleagues’ study into the waning portrayal of natural environments in illustrated children’s books.

Robert Woody, School of Music, launched his new blog at Psychology Today on March 8. The blog focuses on “motivation, emotion and the questions that keep musicians up at night.”

This is a monthly column featuring UNL faculty, administrators and staff in the national news. National media often work with University Communications to identify and connect with UNL sources for the purpose of including the university’s research, expertise and programming in published or broadcasted work.

Faculty, administration, student and staff appearances in the national media are logged here. If you have additions to this list or suggestions for national news stories, contact Steve Smith at 402-472-4226 or