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CU News Corps survey finds voters to be receptive to fact checking, but debate over merits continues

Lars Gesing, Peri Duncan, and Paul McDivitt

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Aiming to make sense of a relentless surge of political advertisements, journalistic fact-checking projects in Colorado reached large numbers of Front Range voters, who found those endeavors to be generally effective in this year’s midterm election season, a CU News Corps/Aspen Research survey found.
Despite a one-sided ad-to-fact check ratio, 79 percent of the 400 surveyed registered voters in nine counties along Colorado’s Front Range said they had watched or read at least one fact check, such as the 9News “Truth Test.” Two out of three (66 percent) said those fact checks were effective at helping them frame an issue.

The findings provide moral support to journalists in Colorado and the U.S., who in the next 23 months will again take on the powerful machine of political advertisers as the 2016 presidential race rolls around.

“News organizations are seeing that these things are popular and that it’s impactful, effective and well done,” said the American Press Institute’s Jane Elizabeth, who travels across the country encouraging newsrooms to step up their fact-checking efforts.

Elizabeth believes it is up to journalists to provide the missing context to non-stop political advertising.

To put Colorado’s political journalists’ fact-checking efforts into perspective, CU News Corps also analyzed ad buys during the 35-day period leading up to Election Day. It revealed that the four major TV stations in the Denver market – NBC 9, CBS 4, ABC 7 and Fox 31 – aired almost 200 hours of political advertisements from Oct. 1 to Nov. 4, charging $40 million in fees.

This election cycle, Denver was among the top media markets by ad volume, according to Kantar Media/CMAG, underscoring Colorado’s national importance as a swing-state. With so much at stake, the campaigns frequently used negative ads. According to the Cook Political Report, Colorado led the nation in negative ad occurrences throughout all Senate and Governors’ races.

Colorado newsrooms tried to match the ad pummeling with varying degrees of commitment to fact checking. 9News led the field with eight different “Truth Tests” in that same 35-day period. 7News, on the other hand, didn’t air a single fact check.

Journalists and media analysts continue to debate the merits of fact-checking projects and their limited resources in the face of seemingly endless streams of money flowing into hundreds of hours of political advertising.

The ad-to-fact-check ratio, critics argue, makes the journalistic efforts a quixotic tilt at windmills.

“Getting called out for an ad that’s blatantly false isn’t all that humiliating,” said Eli Stokols, a political reporter at Fox31 in Denver. “The humiliation doesn’t get amplified to the same degree that the ads do.”

Brendan Nyhan is a political scientist and media critic at Dartmouth University, and a regular contributor to “The Upshot,” the New York Times’ data-driven politics and policy analysis website. He asks fact-checkers – and their funders – to temper their cynicism.

“The fact that we haven’t gotten rid of inaccuracy in politics doesn’t mean that fact-checking has failed,” he said.

PolitiFact creator Bill Adair, a journalism and public policy professor at Duke University, explained in an email that, “The goal of fact-checking is not to get politicians to stop lying. The goal is, like all journalism, to inform democracy. Fact-checkers do that extremely well and it has empowered voters throughout the world with important information.”

Survey: 9News’ commitment to fact checking pays off

The CU News Corps/Aspen Research data supports Nyhan’s suggestion. The poll surveyed 400 registered voters along the northern Front Range – those people who are generally more likely to seek out information and engage in political conversation.

One central finding of the poll: The efforts that 9News, the market leader in Denver metro area television news, and political reporter Brandon Rittiman put into fact checking paid off. Thirty-nine percent of respondents said they had watched at least one “Truth Test.”

That number was by far the highest among all major fact-checkers. FactCheck.org, a non-partisan fact-checking project at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center, and CBS4’s “Reality Check” (both 18 percent) followed. An additional 12 percent mentioned PolitiFact, and 8 percent had read a Denver Post “Fact Lab” story.

More good news for avid fact checkers, especially in television news: Their medium still makes up the single-largest information source for Front Range voters. One in three, or 33 percent, said they used television news to inform themselves about politics and the election, followed by online media (20 percent) and newspapers (12 percent). Only 1 percent, on the other hand, referred to advertising as an information source, suggesting that voters don’t take the claims of political ads as gospel.

Although 79 percent of respondents had read or watched a fact check, and 66 percent found them to be effective, the real impact of fact checking on the behavior of campaigns is hard to assess.

“Think of it like a state trooper parked on the side of the highway,” Bill Adair, the PolitiFact creator, wrote in an email. “How many drivers slow down and don’t break the speed limit because they know the state trooper is there? Probably lots. But there is no way to put a number on it.”

Peter Hanson, a political scientist at the University of Denver, said the problem with fact checks is that they don’t reach all of the audience they are targeting.

“The people who are reading those are likely to be highly partisan and have their minds already made up anyway,” he said. “People who are genuinely persuadable are generally a little less engaged in politics. It is possible that they would read that and that it would factor into their decision, but really people’s decisions are less likely to be motivated by that kind of thing and more motivated by a general sense of how the economy is doing and their overall impression of how the president is doing.”

Breakdown of ad buys by station shows: Political advertising drowns fact checks

A closer look at each of Denver’s four TV stations’ ad buys illustrates just how daunting a task fact checking was for Colorado’s political journalists.

ad money distributionCU News Corps analyzed each station’s filings with the Federal Communications Commission from Oct. 1 to Election Day on Nov. 4 and found that in those 35 days alone, NBC 9 aired almost 60 hours of political ads, raking in $15.25 million (minus agency commission fees). In the same time period, 9News ran eight “Truth Tests.”

The ratios don’t look much better for the other stations either.

CBS 4 flooded its airwaves with 36 hours, or $11.29 million worth of political ads. The news section responded with what one website operations staffer believed to be four “Reality Checks,” although he said the station no longer had access to a comprehensive archive of all of the “Reality Check” clips and airtimes.

Fox 31 collected $6.2 million for airing 41 hours of ads from the likes of Cory Gardner, John Hickenlooper and company. Its political reporters churned out half a dozen editions of its “Fact or Fiction” segment during that time.

And ABC 7’s advertising department sold the most political ads of all four stations, with 61.5 hours for $7.54 million, while its newsroom didn’t do a single fact check.

2okKelty Logan, an advertising professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, said with so much money in the system and political advertising protected as political speech, there is a lot of pressure for candidates to come up with the most negative campaign to motivate the base.

“Slanting the truth has become the flavor of the day,” she said.

But for some, even fact checking each and every political ad wouldn’t solve what they believe to be the crux of the format.

“The problem I have with allowing so much of someone’s coverage to be dominated by fact checking ads is that when you add them all up, at the end of the day there is so much oversaturation,” said Eli Stokols, Fox 31’s political reporter who did several fact checks in early October because his editors had asked him to do at least a few for them to have a presence on the air. “”Even if you fact check every single one diligently, it all just gets too cluttered, messy and difficult for your audience to really keep all these different strings of research straight.”

Newsrooms struggle to balance economic constraints with labor-intensive fact-checking efforts

Economic considerations led 7News investigative reporter Marshall Zelinger to abandon his “Truth Tracker” segment this year, with only one exception in July, after it had made regular appearances on the air during the 2012 presidential campaign.

For CU-Boulder political communication specialist Elizabeth Skewes, such a decision is no surprise.

“It takes a lot of time, effort and funding to do good fact checking – and to stay on top of all the claims,” she said. “If you don’t have enough resources and you’re only spot checking, it can almost do a disservice.”

Zelinger said scheduling conflicts didn’t allow him to commit the time to the “Truth Tracker.” He said he kept bringing up the idea but was always beaten by the news of the day. He said he was not aware of any management decisions to bring in staff or hand the segment to another reporter.

But fact checking isn’t exclusively a TV news endeavor.

As Chuck Plunkett was preparing for the presidential debate on the University of Denver campus in 2012, the Denver Post politics editor started talking to university representatives about a potential collaboration to start fact checking the increasing number of political ads. Two years later, Plunkett taught a pilot program at the University of Denver, and a group of five students started contributing to the “Fact Lab.” Between Oct. 1 and Nov. 4, they published eight fact checks on the Post’s politics blog, “The Spot.”

Plunkett believes the media should do more. He said campaigns can hire “very slick, sophisticated people” to produce the ads. “They can create emotions and emotional reactions in the viewer that are hard to parse.”

The public, specifically the undecided voters who want to use their vote as well as possible, rely on journalists and fact checks, Plunkett added.

“The genius, if you can use that word, behind the better ads – and there are many good ones – is that they tell you enough of the truth to make it sound somewhat credible. Even an intelligible person with access to the internet would have to go through a few rabbit holes to figure out if the claims are valid.”

Plunkett said the Post’s pilot program could serve as a role model. “Given the fact that newsrooms everywhere have just been crippled by layoffs, it’s good to look to other venues to fulfill that role, as long as they are credible – like a university.”

National fact checkers fight over merits of rulings but agree that fact checks do good

FactCheck.org has proven that an independent fact-checking project at a university can be successful – even on the national level.

Director Eugene Kiely said the goal to change a candidate’s behavior is unrealistic. Instead, he strives to be a voter advocate.

FactCheck.org publishes stories on a wide variety of channels, from the USA Today print edition, website and its AdTracker app to Politico.com and the Bing News App.

Kiely and his four and a half staffers (one of them works only two days a week) can use the freedom that comes with operating outside the economic boundaries of a newsroom to rethink the approach to fact-checking.

In their case, that means getting rid of ratings. Kiely calls “pinocchios” and “half true” labels arbitrary.

“You really can’t justify them,” he said. “What’s the difference between half true and mostly true? It becomes subjective, and we deal with things objectively as much as we can.”

Sean Gorman disagrees. The PolitiFact Virginia reporter fact-checked the state’s neck-and-neck Senate race between Ed Gillespie and Mark Warner. He also took a close look at Dave Brat’s primary upset of then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.

“When folks disagree with the ruling, they will email and oftentimes come up with a really good rationale,” he said. “People engage with the rulings. That’s where the effectiveness comes in. People take in the information.”

Gorman said in the weeks leading up to the election, traffic on the PolitiFact Virginia website spiked.

He and Kiely agree that fact checking has its impact. The FactCheck.org director vividly remembers two instances from the 2012 presidential campaign trail. One was when Republican candidate Mitt Romney dropped the talking point that his company had created 100,000 jobs after eager fact checkers had pointed out that he couldn’t support the number. The other example was President Obama’s attempt to decry his challenger as the “outsourcer in-chief” who shipped jobs to Mexico and China. Repeatedly, fact checkers made it clear that while Romney later invested in the company in question, Bain Capital, he wasn’t doing work for them at the time. Obama stopped using the label.

Campaigns entering the fact-checking ring could be a game-changer

Whether it is the presidential race or a toss-up Senate contest in Colorado, as fact-checkers point out inconsistencies in campaign claims, getting labeled as biased by the candidate’s supporters and partisan hacks comes with the territory.

Dartmouth’s Brendan Nyhan said people are programmed to see the media as biased against them.

“That’s the cost of doing business in a partisan era. You have to be willing to take your lumps.”

Twenty-nine percent of respondents in the CU News Corps/Aspen Research survey said fact checks in Colorado anno 2014 were biased toward liberal views, while another 24 percent had sensed a bias toward conservative convictions.

Increasingly, political campaigns commandeer fact checks and re-spin them.

During debates and on the candidates’ websites, staffers fact-check their opponents in real time. But their goal isn’t the truth – it’s to convince yet another voter by stretching the truth the other way.

They also recycle favorable portions of fact checks to help prove a point in attack ads, hoping that the fact-check reference will lend credibility to their claim.

PolitiFact Virginia’s Sean Gorman said the campaigns understand that fact-checking is becoming a part of the political landscape.

“A lot of times we see our fact checks cited by the campaigns – and sometimes not correctly,” he said. “If they are mischaracterizing something we have said it is up to us to correct the record. Interestingly enough, when they do it, it becomes fodder for additional fact checks. it is kind of like being part of the conversation.”

But the API’s Jane Elizabeth said fact-check “could become a bad word” if campaigns continue to misuse it.

While fact-check advocates like her say that now more than ever journalists need to be the guardians of truth, siding with voters to tell them what’s right and wrong, others are not so sure if that has all the hoped-for effects.

Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli is one of those skeptics. He says voters are weary of hearing that all politicians are liars. He believes fact checks, however noble their cause, are contributing to that sentiment.

“It just reinforces the fact that we all are being convinced that there is little honesty out there.”

But Nyhan said, “when it comes to matters of fact, when the accuracy of a claim can be assessed, you are doing your reader or viewer a disservice if you don’t try to help them sort through the evidence.”

As he was doing research on fact-checking, Nyhan found proof that it actually has a positive effect.

“Legislators who received reminders of the threat of fact-checking were less likely to have the accuracy of their claims questioned publicly,” he said.

In the end, even with the effectiveness of fact checking hard to assess, the general question is: How many more accidents would there be if the state trooper wasn’t parked at the side of the highway?

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Explanatory Multimedia Reporting from CU Boulder Journalism Students
CU News Corps survey finds voters to be receptive to fact checking, but debate over merits continues