When factchecking goes ‘gray’

Two Denver news outlets made similar dissections of an attack ad but arrived at not-so-similar conclusions

COLORADO — Denver’s two dominant media outlets—The Denver Post and 9NEWS KUSA television—recently conducted factchecks on a 6th Congressional District campaign ad in which incumbent Rep. Mike Coffman accuses Democratic challenger Joe Miklosi of being soft on child predators.

The ad in question is one of many in this hard-fought congressional race in the working-class neighborhoods east of Denver, but one that has attracted special attention because of its subject matter and timing.

On October 5, ten-year-old Jessica Ridgeway left her suburban Denver home to walk to school, but she never arrived. Her disappearance—which ended tragically last Friday when her body was found about seven miles from her home—has been a top story here. Coincidentally, Coffman’s ad aired at the same time the story of Ridgeway’s disappearance was breaking. In other words, as KUSA had it, this ad struck “a nerve.”

A look at the two factchecking efforts—the Post’s “Political Polygraph” by Kurtis Lee and 9News’s “Truth Test” by Brandon Rittiman—finds many similarities. Both reporters start with the ad’s claim that “258,000 children are abducted in America this year,” which KUSA describes as “misleading” and the Post calls “rather inflated” (both outlets note that the majority of these abductions are family-related, and a far smaller number of children—roughly 115—are the victims of “stereotypical” kidnapping by strangers.) Concluded KUSA:

By using the much larger number of 258,000 cases, the Coffman campaign ad is sensationalizing a sensitive topic in order to launch a political argument about a vote Joe Miklosi took as a state legislator.

About Miklosi’s vote: the ad claims, as KUSA and the Post note, that Miklosi “cast one of the deciding votes against Jessica’s law” (a 2009 Colorado law, modeled after a 2005 Florida law, to stiffen penalties on those convicted of sex crimes against children)—a claim KUSA says “needs context.” While KUSA goes on to supply some good context, the Post’s dissection is stronger. In part:

So, what Miklosi actually voted on was a provision similar to one part of “Jessica’s Law.”

Moreover, Coffman’s ad fails to note Miklosi did vote for the final version of the underlying bill, which imposed a host of tough new sanctions on child predators, not exactly siding ‘with the lawyers who defend the worst predators,’ as the ad says.

And yet despite the ad’s “failure” here and “rather inflated” numbers earlier, the Post’s “Political Polygraph”—which assigns ratings including “Nothing But the Truth,” “Leans True,” “Gray Area (Maybe, Maybe Not)” “Leans Deceptive,” and “A Whopper”—curiously concludes that the ad “falls into the gray area.”

By contrast, here is KUSA’s “bottom line” conclusion:

This ad blows numbers out of proportion and oversimplifies Miklosi’s voting record on the issues.

Nothing gray there.

Looking at the two headlines—“TRUTH TEST: Anti-Miklosi ad scares voters, oversimplifies child predator issue” (KUSA), and “Political Polygraph: Coffman’s ‘Jessica’s Law’ attack ad against Miklosi falls into gray” (Post)— you might not guess that the dissections that follow are actually quite similar.

Asked to talk about how the Post arrived at its “gray” designation, Lee responded via email that “It’s a collaborative effort on the politics desk in deciding whether an ad is gray, leans true, leans deceptive, etc.”

The Denver Post Politics Editor, Chuck Plunkett, elaborated:

We readily admit the designations are more art than science. Our goal is to lay out the claims and facts clearly so that readers can make up their own minds, and add one of our ready-made Political Polygraph terms to the piece to help give guidance. This ad contained several actual provable statements. But the interpretation of the facts the ad makes is where we felt it departed from solid ground. So, gray area.

In this case, the Post succeeded in its goal of “laying out the claims and facts clearly,” but the addition of that “ready-made term” arguably confused what was an otherwise solid analysis by the Post. We’ve written before at The Swing States Project about the challenges of “the standard lingo of the factchecking industry, which generally tries to sort out true and false claims, and labels the most outrageous assertions as lies, if only idiomatically” and “the difficulty [factcheckers] face in pushing back at political rhetoric that’s irresponsible or unfounded, but not demonstrably false.” Swing States Project’s Nevada correspondent, Jay Jones, wrote those words while praising the Las Vegas Sun’s use of a “fairness” meter (rather than a “truth” meter) in its factchecking feature. Perhaps more outlets should adopt the approach.

While KUSA, here, calls its work a “TRUTH TEST,” what it actually tells its audience—clearly, helpfully—is where and how Coffman’s ad is unfair.

Related stories:

”How ‘half-true’ happens”

”Another factchecking fiasco”

“What the factcheckers get wrong”

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Mary Winter has worked for seven newspapers, most recently the Denver Post, and was assistant managing editor at PoliticsDaily.com. 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.