In his News piece, Shepardson waits until the ninth paragraph to address this misleading implication, and then only via an Obama campaign spokesperson (thus suggesting that this is a matter of political opinion, rather than a fact that can, and has, been checked). It takes all the way to the sixteenth paragraph before the story says that Chrysler is “flatly denying it has any plans to move Jeep output to China from the United States.” By this point, readers may well not know what, or whom, to believe.
In contrast, National Journal also analyzed the Romney ad on Sunday, and gave its piece this crystal clear headline: “Romney ad wrongly implies Chrysler is sending US jobs to China.” Reporter Jill Lawrence followed with a strong, direct lede: “Republican nominee Mitt Romney is running a new TV ad that implies Chrysler is planning to move U.S. auto jobs to China, though that is not the case.” Lawrence later wrote that, especially following so closely after Romney’s Ohio speech, the ad “could lead viewers to conclude Chrysler was indeed going to shift Jeep production to China.” The Detroit newspapers made the same points, but the News in particular did it in a delayed fashion that made the story murky. (The News did better in a piece published yesterday—with the benefit of a strong, clear statement from Chrysler’s CEO—but, as National Journal demonstrated, that sort or work can and should be done the first time around).
For all that, the News on Sunday did point out many of the ad’s disjointed claims, including the same points the Free Press made, but adding, for example, that while the News endorsed Romney, its editorial specifically criticized Romney’s “wrong-headedness on the auto bailout.” Shephardson also had a nicely succinct way of narrating the political history of the bailouts, including the all-too-easily forgotten fact that they originated before President Obama took office.
Unlike the Detroit papers, the National Journal piece cited and linked to Romney’s famous 2008 New York Times op-ed, ”Let Detroit Go Bankrupt”, which, as Lawrence paraphrased, “said the companies should be required to rely on private capital until after the bankruptcy. But most analysts agree there was none available in the depths of the recession, and without the bailout the two companies would have likely died—possibly taking down with them the supply chain and Ford.” The mention here of the supply chain’s influence on the one member of the Big Three that didn’t take federal loans is a relief: when debating the wisdom of the bailouts, the ground-shaking effect that Chrysler and GM’s death would have had on the other major player in the US auto industry is often neglected by journalists.
When reporting on political ads, reporters have a tricky line to walk. They need to think not just in terms of providing additional information to counter or affirm political claims, but also in how the ordering of information contributes to the perception of what is both important and true. This means getting the critical perspective on—and context for—claims high up in their stories, and not repeating a misleading claim without an immediate clarification for readers. While follow-up stories, like the second News piece, are useful for providing readers with a comprehensive picture of what’s happening, the presidential election is in less than a week: facts shouldn’t be spread out over a series of days. Readers need them now.