The panelists also said that, given resource limitations, they can’t be expected to independently factcheck every political ad their stations run. “In any given week, I will have six candidates on the air with maybe four different ads; you’ll have five super PACs ” said Susan Petro, political specialist at Washington, D.C.’s WJLA-TV.
Of course, the editorial side at these stations can also take on misleading ads. Indeed, another panel at the conference featured three local TV journalists who supervise factcheck segments on their news broadcasts.
Minnesota’s WCCO-TV has been running “reality check” segments since the 1990s, said Patrick Kessler, a political reporter there. “I think this is an extremely valuable tool for journalists, and I hope it goes more local,” he said. “I believe most of our viewers get much if not most of their info locally. For TV stations around the country, I think this is the future.”
Greg Fox, of Orlando’s WESH-TV, said his station’s “truth test” segments can take days to produce—but they are popular with viewers and can also be ratings boosters. “Resources can be a challenge in smaller market stations. But it’s important. I think sometimes ‘Hey, we’re a small market’ is a bad excuse,” said Fox.
Both Fox and Kessler said that when their stations decide to produce a factcheck segment, they like to let the disputed advertisement run for a few days before the factcheck airs. “We want people to be able to see it for a few days to get an idea of what they’re attempting to say, so they’ll have an idea of what we’re talking about,” said Fox. “We try to give them a lot of information [in the truth test segments], but it doesn’t make a difference if they don’t know what we’re talking about.”
That approach wasn’t well-received by the audience at the Annenberg event. “So you find that the ad is false, but the station continues to air it even after it’s false?” one attendee asked.
“We don’t [always] find an entire ad false. One thing [in it] might be. We [might] find something half-false, half-true,” replied Kessler, who nevertheless admitted that “this is something, journalistically and ethically, I wonder about all the time.”
Another attendee questioned the efficacy of televised factchecks, no matter when they run. “Much of the research suggests that repeating false claims tends to reinforce them. They’re very difficult to debunk,” the questioner noted. “One of the things that concerns me with these segments is that many of them are likely to reinforce the claims.” (CJR contributor Brendan Nyhan and his colleague Jason Riefler have done important original research on the difficulty of debunking misinformation, though they have also identified some best practices for journalists.)
The exchange highlighted different attitudes toward countering misinformation, and a different understanding of what factchecking efforts should try to achieve.
“What’s our goal?” Kessler responded. “Is it to make the politicians stop what they’re doing? Or is it to tell people what’s happened? What’s our ethical responsibility? To me, it’s to inform our viewers and inform our voters.”