united states project

Fact-checking Versus Strategy

When reporters go meta on misleading ads, readers lose
November 29, 2011

NEW HAMPSHIRE — In Sunday’s Boston Globe, reporter Michael Levenson warned of a coming “year of mudslinging.” This “rough, negative, and confusing advertising onslaught,” as Levenson calls it, is foreshadowed by recent ads run by Texas governor Rick Perry and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney which are “drawing howls of protest from Democrats but no apologies from the Republicans’ campaigns.”

In both cases, the evidence is compelling that the candidate ads were misleading. In Perry’s ad, he rips from context an Obama comment about the U.S. being “a little bit lazy” in trying to attract foreign investment and asks, “Can you believe that? That’s what our president thinks is wrong with America? That Americans are lazy?” Similarly, Romney repurposed a 2008 clip in which Obama quoted an advisor to John McCain in 2008 saying that “if we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose” and blended it into an ad that suggests Obama was talking about the 2012 campaign.

How should reporters here in New Hampshire or at the national level cover these sorts of claims?

The first obligation of journalists is to the truth. As such, it is important that reporters set the record straight when ads like these are misleading their audience. The problem, however, is that many national reporters—and the state reporters who increasingly emulate them—have been sucked in by the cult of the savvy. For these journalists, producing meta-level analysis of the effectiveness of deception as a campaign tactic is more important than correcting the factual record for readers.

We saw this problem in coverage of both ads at the national level. For instance, The New Republic’s Alec MacGillis highlighted a Politico article that focused on how the “little bit lazy” phrase “is quickly becoming a focus of Republican campaigns.” The context of Obama’s statement is briefly acknowledged in the lede, but the authors write that “the context may not matter as much as the punch line.” The New Yorker‘s Ryan Lizza noted similar pathologies in Politico and Washington Post articles that focused on the strategic effectiveness of Romney’s ad rather than the truth value of its claims.

These sorts of stories play into the hands of campaign strategists who exploit the objectivity bias of the press, knowing that artificially balanced coverage of “controversial ads” and savvy analysis of their effectiveness will likely reinforce the ads’ messages. Indeed, Romney’s advisers were reportedly “pleased with the reaction” to the ad—one told the Boston Globe, “It’s all deliberate. It was all very intentional.” The Romney campaign was especially clever in this regard, including the context of the quote in its press release to preempt criticism of the ad as misleading and called on the media to provide that context to the public. The strategy recalls one of the Bush’s administration’s most effective tactics—the use of technically true but misleading claims that the media were reluctant to fact-check.

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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 debatefocused 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.

Brendan Nyhan is an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College. He blogs at brendan-nyhan.com and tweets @BrendanNyhan.