Big ad spending, little press scrutiny

NC journalists need to stay on the story of the political ad spending spree

NORTH CAROLINA — It’s hotter than usual in North Carolina this summer.

And much of the heat is coming from the high-intensity air war being waged here, with presidential campaign ad spending surpassing $20 million as of July 22 in a state that has traditionally been a bystander in presidential contests (until 2008). The ad spending numbers at the Washington Post’s Campaign Ad Tracker say presidential candidates, PACs and interest groups have to date spent $14.5 million in Charlotte (and $5.6 million in Raleigh). Those figures (which tally ads that have actually hit the airwaves, not total buys announced) put Charlotte in the same category as key markets in other swing states—like Tampa ($15.2 million), Cleveland ($13.6), and Las Vegas ($12.6).

In addition to the presidential ad deluge, during combative GOP primaries here, North Carolina’s rural, Charlotte-abutting 8th District Congressional race drew more outside spending than any other district in the country, according to the Center for Responsive Politics (a key follow-the-money resource CJR profiled here.) The 9th District, too—now redesigned in a sinewy shape that takes in Charlotte’s southern and northern suburbs but avoids the center city—was not spared (I wrote for CJR here in April on the mixed results of efforts to factcheck one 9th District candidate’s misleading ad).

Local media here have the opportunity—indeed, the obligation, given the ad saturation—to stay on the story of this spending spree, including shedding light for North Carolinians on who’s spending (whose money) and when and how the ads mislead.

So far, this sort of coverage has been spotty—with some bright spots. Let’s start with some of the solid work so far (much of which has focused on North Carolina races):

The Charlotte Observer’s Jim Morrill and David Perlmutt earlier this month examined why the GOP primary runoff in North Carolina’s 8th District had become a “magnet for money” from outside groups, calling on Bob Beirsack from the Center for Responsive Politics to explain that since the 8th is “largely rural and expects a small turnout… outside groups ‘can get a bigger bang for the buck’.” In late June, Perlmutt talked with 9th District voters who expressed dismay at “the flurry of negative radio ads and mailers” and the lack of candidates explaining, as one voter put it, “what they’re going to do.” Morrill also logged spending in the 9th about monthly on the Observer’s Campaign Tracker blog, including a post on one candidate’s massive self-financing. (This work managed to avoid the tone of almost-gleeful wonder about the amounts being spent, a tone one sometimes encounters in national stories that, as Walter Shapiro explored for CJR here, routinely source from political consultants and others who make their money from candidates.) Elsewhere, Lee Weisbecker in the Triangle Business Journal took brief note of the presidential ad blitz, which was also a topic on a July 10th segment of News 14 Carolina’s Capitol Tonight.

But given the volume of political advertising here, North Carolina media—and particularly Charlotte media—need to do more for its audiences. Below, I offer some basic suggestions for improving coverage of the money and ad deluge—suggestions that I chewed over last week with Jim Walser, senior editor/investigations and supervisor of political coverage for the Charlotte Observer.

Explain and illuminate outside spending: Don’t leave it to Stephen Colbert to educate voters on how these TV ads are being funded—often, not by the candidates themselves. When reporting on outside spending, identify what type of group is doing the spending (super PAC? Non-disclosing 501(c)4?) and, when possible, whose money the group is spending. Point readers and viewers to resources for digging deeper, if they wish, such as to campaign finance filings at the Federal Election Commission or to the Center for Responsive Politics’s

The Observer’s Walser told me that he hopes the paper will spend more time on the presidential campaign and get back to examining campaign donations closely after the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte (September 3-6)—on which, he said, the Charlotte newsroom is now focused. (In late March, the Observer announced a Convention-coverage partnership with Politico, which, ideally, could ease the Obsever’s burden). The Observer launched a detailed graphic on donations flowing from North Carolina back in February, along with a stage-setting piece that explained North Carolina’s importance in the presidential contest this year. But the graphic has not been updated since and is not obviously linked from the newspaper’s online politics page. The paper should build on (and then better showcase) what it started earlier this year.

Factcheck key ads: These ads are running in discrete, local markets and reaching viewers who might not seek out factchecks in national media. So there is value in running factchecks in local media, where casual consumers of political news might see them. Yes, North Carolina’s Congressional primary races (and late runoff) sucked up capacity for the state’s political reporters. But the volume of ads in Charlotte demands an effort to contextualize them for voters, even if it means running wire copy, licensing the Washington Post, or pitching-in by McClatchy DC.

One example: a Mitt Romney ad stars Jack Gilchrist of New Hampshire as a small business owner complaining about Barack Obama’s “You didn’t build that” phrase. The ad is in heavy rotation in Charlotte, with the “Why are you demonizing us,” phrase always present. The New Hampshire Union Leader reported on Gilchrist’s background and noted his business had received a government loan, assistance and contracts. For Charlotte audiences, that information would be valuable.

Truth-checking advertising is, the Observer’s Walser told me, “something we’d like to be doing more on,” noting that the abundance of ads makes it “harder for us to keep up with.” The Observer’s sister paper, the Raleigh News & Observer, has helped, and the papers regularly share content. John Frank of the News & Observer factchecks without a particular schedule and on top of other duties, including state legislative coverage when it was in session, but also has a primary focus on statewide races. The News & Observer dedicates a web page to factchecking, a valuable organizing method that highlights the work. Walser, pointing to DVRs, Hulu and Netflix, also wondered about “writing about ads that nobody is watching” (before expressing personal sadness that ESPN plans to start taking political ads during football season.)

Which feeds nicely into this next suggestion:

Explore the effectiveness of TV ads, and what’s next in voter targeting: Despite the abundance of advertising in swing states, only 25 percent of those surveyed by Pew in June in the 18-29 age group say they have seen “lots of ads.” As voters move away from TV screens and consume more media online, how are campaigns using targeted tools to reach them? ProPublica had an illuminating recent post headlined, “How Mitt Romney Followed Me Around the Internet.” And Walter Shapiro, here at CJR in May, suggested getting out and talking to voters to get a sense of if and how the ad barrage is working.

North Carolinians will continue to be bombarded by political ads for the next three-plus months. Reporters here need to equip voters with some of the means—information, context, links to additional resources—to defend themselves.

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Andria Krewson is an independent journalist in Charlotte and a student in the University of North Carolina's master of arts in technology and digital communication. She worked at The Charlotte Observer for many years. Find her on Twitter at or