Phyllis Kaniss was neither a politician nor a reporter, but when it came to Philadelphia mayoral campaigns, she understood how the media cover elections as well as either.

Her views, though, on the 2011 mayor's race will not be known.

Dr. Kaniss, 59, a media critic and former assistant dean at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, died Friday, Dec. 17, from complications related to cancer.

Colleagues and friends - and some subjects of her studies - remembered her as an inspired, and inspiring, teacher.

"She translated her scholarly interests into efforts to make the world better. She trained students to be reporters about local news," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center.

For close to 30 years, Dr. Kaniss taught courses on the media and urban politics and policy. More recently, she served as executive director of the American Academy of Political and Social Science.

A scholar of media and politics, she authored two books, Making Local News, published in 1991, which studied media motivations in covering local news events; and, in 1995, The Media and the Mayor's Race: The Failure of Urban Political Reporting, an examination of media coverage of the 1991 Philadelphia mayoral race.

"You knew she was a person of considerable smarts, but she was dealing with a subject in a way that was very much in the weeds and she was very comfortable with the nitty-gritty stuff and understanding the manipulation that went on on both sides," recalled Republican Sam Katz, one of eight candidates in the '91 race who were main players in her 1995 book.

He added: "She had a very soft and warm personality, a genuine curiosity with the process, a very strong affinity."

David L. Cohen, campaign manager for Democrat Ed Rendell, who went on to win the race, said, "Phyllis had a huge influence on the scholarship relating to the media coverage of political campaigns and how that coverage influenced campaigns. But she was also quintessential Philadelphia - tremendously impactful, but totally understated."

Raised in the Oxford Circle area of Northeast Philadelphia, Dr. Kaniss earned her bachelor's degree from the University of Pennsylvania. She later earned a Ph.D. in regional science from Cornell University.

Dr. Kaniss created and directed the Student Voices Project, a civic-education program that brings local political candidates into student classrooms. Begun at the Annenberg Public Policy Center, it has since been replicated in several high schools nationwide.

Among her several newspaper op-ed articles over the years was one about her study of excessive television coverage of crime compared to political news. "Looking closely at the content of local newscasts is a little like reading the ingredients on a box of Lucky Loops cereal," she wrote. "You always knew it wasn't oatmeal, but until you scrutinized the list, you didn't realize just how much junk was thrown in to make it taste so good."

Funeral arrangements were pending.

Dr. Kaniss is survived by her husband, Paul Wheeling; and their sons, Joshua, 24, and Max, 21.

Contact staff writer Marcia Gelbart at 215-854-2338 or mgelbart@phillynews.com.