Seeking Truth in the Digital Storm

Colorado’s reporters search for ways to keep up with empowered campaigns

COLORADO — Reporter Patrick Malone answers quickly when asked to identify the hardest part of covering politics for his newspaper, The Pueblo Chieftain.

“It’s finding the truth within the rhetoric from both parties” in an era of instant communication and unrelenting pressure on journalists to break news, he says.

Malone points to the pre-Christmas showdown in Congress over extending the payroll tax cut, when a policy stalemate set the spin cycle in motion.

“You get an email or a tweet that says the Democrats just denied a tax break to the middle class, and a second later, you get one that says the Republicans did the same thing, and the heat is on [from editors] to get both of these messages out—to retweet both.

“The campaigns’ messaging is what we have to sift through—their message versus reality—and in 140 characters, it’s almost impossible to discern,” says Malone.

With the 2012 campaign set to begin in earnest, questions about the trustworthiness of information in the digital age beg to be addressed: Will reporters have the time they need to “sift through” the increasing amount of online partisan information from campaigns? Will efforts to keep track of—or push back against—the campaigns’ claims come at the expense of substantive reporting? And what are the implications for the Fourth Estate, and our democracy, when candidates can disseminate their unmediated, unchallenged messages directly to voters?

Like most of his colleagues who work out of the Capitol in Denver, Malone has witnessed a sea change in political messaging. Campaigns, whether legislative or electoral, are far less reliant on traditional media to reach the public. Thanks to Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, blogs, and email, politicians and their staff now have new ways to connect with voters.

In this way, campaigns are just figuring out what tech-savvy companies have already learned, says Sandra Fish, a journalist and journalism instructor at the University of Colorado. “You take your message directly to the people who have an interest in your brand and get them on board with that message and get them to help spread it.”

And, in the process, bypass scrutiny from reporters. Some observers see in this shift a way to circumvent the biases of the media, like overemphasis on the horse race. But Malone worries about the potential for agenda-driven sources to spread corrupt or incomplete information—and also the pressure that the new technology exerts on journalists.

“We really used to be leaders by being gatekeepers of the news and (researching) what is legitimate. Now we’ve become followers in the interest of being first and fastest,” he says. And he wonders if reporters could become tools of partisan organizations, outmatched by their superior resources and organization. “Are we going to allow ourselves to be nothing more than billboards… or are we still going to take the time to find out what these stories mean at the expense of being 10 minutes or an hour or two later than the next guy?”

Joe Hanel, political reporter for The Durango Herald, shares Malone’s concerns about campaigns’ expanded messaging ability, though he believes most voters are sophisticated enough to see through the propaganda put out by partisan websites.

What bothers Hanel more is those sites’ ability to influence elite and media opinion, which is their main goal, he believes. “They understand very well the motivations that editors and reporters have—that one of our baser instincts is competition.”

As a rule, Hanel says, reporters simply ignore bogus story ideas pitched by party operatives—until one reporter takes the bait. “All of a sudden your editor says, ‘Why didn’t we have it?’ and then everyone is dog-piling on the story… And then you have to do the story, no matter what. You can even write that the claim [being reported in the story] is not borne out by the evidence, but the fact is you’re still writing about it and driving the news cycle for a day.”

Hanel cited an example from early December that he said illustrated his point—though it also underscores how journalists may make different choices when confronted with hard decisions about how to combat false or unsupported narratives.

The episode began when a conservative blog carried a story under the headline: “Misogynistic Maps? Democrat Reapportionment Maps Take Direct Shot At Conservative Women.” The article, which appeared at Colorado Peak Politics, blasted state Democrats for redrawing legislative districts so that three powerful Republic female lawmakers would run have to run against each other, and suggested Democrats’ were responsible for the shrinking ranks of Republican women in the legislature.

Hanel says the article’s contention was “silly.” In fact, “It’s not Democrats suppressing women in the GOP—it’s Republican men suppressing women in the GOP,” he says.

Denver Post politics reporter Lynn Bartels agreed. As the story remained the subject of tweets and talk over several days, she authored a post that shot down the blog’s thesis, with a lede noting that “conservative men have played a role in diminishing female numbers.”

Bartels told CJR she normally does not respond to stories posted by partisan websites. But she says the “Misogynistic Maps” story was not just silly—it was “outrageous.” For years, Bartels has tracked the number of female legislators in Colorado, documenting a decline in Republican women and the swelling ranks of Democratic women, and she says she felt almost a personal responsibility to set the record straight. “I knew [the original article] was just totally self-serving, erroneous crapola,” she says. (Disclosure: Bartels and I were colleagues at the Rocky Mountain News.)

But while Bartels’s item—and a follow-up—debunked the claim, Hanel believes the blog achieved its purpose, simply because it stirred the pot, kept the story in the news, and brought attention to itself. “The [Denver Post] story was not written the way [Colorado Peak Politics] would have wanted, but nevertheless, it influenced the behavior of the state’s flagship newspaper” and ended up widely linked and mentioned in many Twitter feeds, Hanel said.

Those knotty dilemmas aside, the new communication channels—which include partisan cable networks, as well as blogs and social media—have also contributed to the increasingly national scope of much political activity, which has consequences for local outlets covering the 2012 campaign, says Eli Stokols, reporter for Channel 31, the Fox affiliate, and Channel 2, the CW station, in Denver.

“It doesn’t matter if [a candidate] shows up for a pancake breakfast anymore because of the way the national media happens and the way it runs on TV and the Internet. It changes the way people campaign,” said Stokols. While those local events still create photo ops, they also create risk to candidates in the form of ubiquitous video cameras and microphones ready to record unscripted moments—like a recent appearance by GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney at an event where a gay Vietnam veteran challenged him on his opposition to same-sex marriage.

But despite the concerns, and a general acknowledgement that traditional outlets are playing catch-up in the new media world, some reporters pointed to the opportunity newspapers have to keep, or reclaim, their bully pulpit.

“For as much as people bash mainstream media and say it’s a dinosaur and it’s going away, they sure spend a lot of time trying to get good write-ups and links from our Twitter feed,” says Hanel, of The Durango Herald. “And it’s not like campaigns are the only ones with Facebook pages and Twitter feeds. I’ve been using Twitter actively for a few months now and it’s fantastic… It amplifies the voice of a small newspaper.”

And John Schroyer of The Gazette in Colorado Springs believes the way to battle partisan spin masters is to “fight fire with fire.” Schroyer is a social media pro who believes it’s critical that newspapers develop online relationships with readers.

“As much as possible, we respond to readers’ comments and questions. Our Facebook becomes a personal page as much as professional one,” he says. Such networking increases a newspaper’s audience and allows journalists to combat misinformation spread by partisan campaigns, Schroyer says. Most of all, “you become a source your readers trust. That is our culture now. It is, and it should be.”

Ed Sealover, who covered politics for the Rocky Mountain News in Denver in 2008-09 and now writes for the Denver Business Journal, agrees that media watchers shouldn’t read too much into the proliferation of partisan noise in the twittersphere.

“I don’t think the sky is falling on this issue,” says Sealover. Candidates “are still shooting for the middle ground, and the middle ground is not going to be following Romney’s or Obama’s tweets. They’re going to be watching CNN and reading local news—not maybe in numbers they used to, but still very significant.

“And for all the idea that you’re only getting candidates’ filtered messages now, look at what happened to Rick Perry: people jumped behind him and said he’s our guy, but after three or four debates he was essentially done in the presidential race. You allow traditional media to throw questions at a candidate, and you see what effect that has. I don’t think this is going to be the end of the world.”

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Mary Winter has worked for seven newspapers, most recently the Denver Post, and was assistant managing editor at She spent the bulk of her career at the Rocky Mountain News, first in features and later managing the legislative and state government teams. In 2008, she oversaw delegate coverage at the Democratic National Convention for the paper. She wrote a weekly column for the News for 10 years.