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.

What can TV reporters do instead? Stokols cites a series of stories he did over the summer about the contortions of prominent Republicans who supported a wind energy tax credit—including then-VP hopefuls Rob Portman and John Thune—until Mitt Romney called for its elimination. More than 1,000 Colorado jobs were at stake with the credit, but Stokols said he was the only TV reporter who showed up at Portman and Thune’s campaign stops to ask about it.

Boyd, who did the “Reality Check” at KCNC and is the station’s sole political reporter, acknowledges that her popular factchecks often made it difficult to cover state and local races. But her news director, Tim Wieland, notes that “Reality Check easily generates more viewer response that anything else we do,” and that the brand had come to permeate the station’s political coverage. Boyd estimated that 90 percent of KCNC’s political coverage was Reality Checks, mostly aimed at political ads, but also at debates and speeches.

In addition to local races, another area that appeared to get short shrift in Denver was investigations of outside spending groups. Reporters at each of Denver’s stations said that their factcheck segments included a discussion of who paid for the ad. But none of the stations could point to specific reports that delved into the financing, or the political connections of outside spending organizations, the often shadowy groups working to influence the viewers and voters.

Bill Wheatley, a former vice president of NBC News, has called on stations to hire additional staff during election years to beef up their political coverage. What could be done with such resources? He suggested in-depth profiles of candidates, including congressional and statewide races, and segments examining candidates’ positions on local issues that the editorial staff judges to be important, rather than just focusing on ads or stump speeches.

“To do a good job on a campaign requires manpower,” Wheatley said. “Most stations could use some extra people in election years.”

Sasha Chavkin covers political money and influence for CJR's United States Project, our politics and policy desk. He has written for ProPublica, the Center for Public Integrity, and The New York World. Follow him on Twitter @sashachavkin.