Kathleen Hall Jamieson—the director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center and a crusader for factchecking of political ads—says Denver had the best on-air reality testing in the nation. “There were more stations doing more factchecking than any other market we could find,” she said.
But even in Denver, the factchecking was swamped by the endless barrage. Karr’s Free Press report compared the amount of time spent airing ads by five leading outside spending groups to the time the stations devoted to covering the ads, and found this: Though Denver’s factchecking surpassed all markets Free Press studied, its stations cumulatively aired 162 minutes of advertising by outside groups for each minute they spent covering them.
“Free Press concluded that local news coverage about these political groups did not begin to address the avalanche of misinformation in political ads,” the report declared. Karr contends that although stations could not be expected to match ads that run repeatedly minute for minute, his findings illustrate a serious deficit in the quantity of factchecking and news coverage of political ads and expenditures.
The debate over the adequacy of Denver’s factchecking bears on two key questions facing broadcasters: How frequently and prominently can they reasonably be expected to debunk misleading ads? And what is the effect?
Patti Dennis, Vice President/News at KUSA, said that between its broadcasts, website, and mobile apps, her station provided its audience with the information necessary to accurately understand the issues at stake. But she argues in strong terms that it is the responsibility of viewers to go beyond passive viewing and seek information out. “If you think that sitting down for 30 minutes a day and watching a television broadcast, leaning back in your La-Z-Boy, you will be comfortable with every vote on your ballot, then you are a fool,” Dennis said. “It takes a little lean forward by the viewer. Sit up in the La-Z-Boy and do your own homework.”
But don’t stations have a special responsibility to rebut deceptive claims on their air? Citing broad language in fcc licensing guidelines—calling on broadcasters to serve the public interest—Karr said “there needs to be a return to the public in the form of increased factchecking and investigative reporting” when stations air specious ads.
The Annenberg Center’s Jamieson recommends dedicated Web pages for factcheck segments. Especially when they are promoted on the air, she said, they allow motivated viewers to educate themselves. Karr concedes that such online factchecks help, but notes that they draw a much smaller audience than newscasts.
Jamieson also suggests that newsrooms develop a convention that would allow factchecks and political newscasts to include brief recaps of previous truth test findings, thus establishing a running narrative on accuracy in a campaign.
Do checkers miss the big picture?
As factchecks emerge as a staple of campaign coverage, not everyone is applauding. Eli Stokols, a reporter at Denver’s KDVR station—known for a comprehensive, shoe-leather approach to politics—mocked the breathless promotion of factcheckers. “They might as well be wearing capes,” Stokols said. Each of Denver’s broadcasters has a branded factcheck franchise: Stokols’ Fox affiliate ran a “Fact or Fiction” segment; KUSA, the NBC affiliate, ran “Truth Tests;” Boyd, at CBS’s KCNC, did “Reality Checks”; and KMGH, the ABC station, had a “Truth Tracker.” But factchecking is “not this altruistic pursuit,” Stokols said. “It’s easier than other reporting, and it’s also very popular.” Some factchecking is appropriate, he concedes, but trying to keep up with misleading ad claims was a “losing game of Whac-a-Mole,” in which journalists are at a perpetual disadvantage to wealthy political financiers. The explosion of factchecking, he contends, sucked oxygen away from traditional political reporting, and from reporting on local issues more relevant to viewers’ lives.
“When you do nothing but factcheck ads, you are in a way letting the big money behind the ads set the terms of the race,” Stokols said.