So how did reporters in New Hampshire do? I’ll focus on the Romney ad, which received far more coverage since it ran here during Obama’s visit to the state. Relative to the worst excesses of national coverage, the record is largely positive, but far more could be done. To its credit, the New Hampshire Union Leader, the state’s largest newspaper, ran a Tribune Washington Bureau article which stated unequivocally that Romney’s ad “takes President Barack Obama’s words out of context” in the lede. Another prominent newspaper here, the Concord Monitor, laudably focused its initial story on the accuracy of the “we’re going to lose” clip in Romney’s ad. Though the headline—“Romney ads starts war of words with Obama”—was far too agnostic and controversy-focused, the Monitor’s Sarah Palermo noted that Romney’s campaign itself acknowledged the context of Obama’s statement and gave the last word to PolitiFact, which rated the ad “pants on fire.” Unfortunately, the Monitor’s second story focused more on the partisan debate over the ad. Likewise, the state’s leading television news source, WMUR, aired a segment by reporter Adam Sexton that attributed the view that the ad is misleading to a “Manchester alderman and Obama supporter.” And the Boston Globe, the leading newspaper in the southern part of the state, ran an initial story that does not clarify the misleading way in which the quote is presented, as well as two debate-focused followups.
When these stories went wrong, it was in presenting the factual dispute as a matter of the Democrats versus Romney and focusing too much on strategy, which can crowd out the substance of the campaign. A better approach would be for reporters to characterize the accuracy of ads in their own voice and to invoke non-partisan experts like PolitiFact. In some cases, it may even be possible to find credible sources on the side of the candidate airing the misleading ad who are willing to state the truth. For instance, WMUR’s Sexton briefly paraphrases a GOP strategist conceding that Romney’s ad is misleading: “Republican political strategist Mike Dennehy says it definitely appears as though Obama’s words are taken out of context.” This approach might be especially persuasive to Republicans who are inclined to trust Romney and distrust the mainstream press.
Still, it’s important to be realistic about the effectiveness of this sort of fact-checking. My co-author Jason Reifler and I have shown in our research (PDF) that fact-checking frequently fails to reduce misperceptions among the ideological group that is most likely to hold the misperception and in some cases makes the problem worse (what we call a “backfire effect”). In this case, reporters should not expect to convince skeptical readers that ads they support are false.
Nonetheless, aggressive fact-checking can provide reputational incentives (PDF) for elites to make more careful claims. For instance, after Michael Moore came under criticism in the 2002-2004 period for his misleading documentaries Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11, he was far more careful with the facts in 2007’s Sicko. Likewise, reporters who hold politicians accountable can help reduce their incentives to mislead the public. Doing so, however, will depend on tough coverage that convinces even the candidate’s own supporters that he or she is in the wrong—a difficult challenge, but one that more state and national journalists should aspire to meet.