It's the home stretch for the Presidential campaigns and the fact-checkers that follow on their heels. Recently, Dr. Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the Annenberg Center for Public Policy, FactCheck.org and Flackcheck.org wrote an Op-Ed praising the TV fact-checkers in Denver for a job well-done fact-checking political ads in their crucial swing state. Brooke spoke with Jamieson who says that when it comes to fact-checking, execution matters.
BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Just three more weeks. A month ago the polls pointed strongly towards a comfortable Obama victory, now no one really knows what the heck is going on. The campaigns and Super PACs are emptying their coffers, snapping up last-ditch TV advertising time in swing states, for better, and frequently, for worse. In a recent op-ed, Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the Annenberg Public Policy Center and FactCheck.org, noted that about a quarter of third party ads, you know, from PACs and Super PACs, in the last six months contained at least one false claim. Considering the volume of ads, that’s a lot of lies. The only thing between the beleaguered residents of swing states and that wave of mendacity might just be the valiant efforts of fact checkers, but that all depends. Jamieson holds up the TV stations of Denver, capital of swing state Colorado, as paragons of fact-checking virtue. They’ve risen to a daunting challenge. The state endured 26,000 political ads through September. Jamieson praised Denver station KUSA, in particular. Let’s hear a clip of fact checking done right.
MAN: In this commercial, we never hear from Joe Miklosi, just people with very bold statements about Congressman Mike Coffman.
MAN: You think you know Mike Coffman –
WOMAN: Maybe it’s time for another look.
WOMAN: Coffman voted to end Medicare. Plus, he made $6400 more each year.
FACT CHECKER: Coffman did not vote to end Medicare, he’s voted to change it. So we’ll label that first statement as false. That plan says in 2022 seniors…
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jamieson says that the real power of this particular example of fact checking lies not so much in what you hear, but what you see.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: It’s aired in a box on the screen that's turned at an angle, with a clear label that tells you it's an ad. You are hearing the reporter and you're seeing the ad about to be analyzed. The correction then comes in and that gains power over the ad. And when print corrections are put up on screen, you are more likely to remember the print amplified by the reporter’s voice than you are the ad content.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you have found that even the best intended fact check, if it's just an audio commentary to a full-screen ad, it has no impact. It's just like giving the ad another free play.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: It actually has impact but what creates the impact is the ad and not the correction. And so, we started this research line after 1988, when a wonderful fact check that was done by Richard Threlkeld of ABC was deconstructing the tank ad that was being run by George Herbert Walker Bush against Michael Dukakis. And the fact check was very specific about the errors that were in the ad. Meantime, the ad is airing full screen, and we actually tested that and found that people who saw that fine piece of journalism had an increased likelihood of believing what the ad had said. They hadn't heard Richard Threlkeld's great reporting at all.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, unlike candidate ads which stations have to run, a station can simply reject a third party ad, tell a Super PAC that hopes to place a mendacious message that they're just not gonna run it. But how many stations are actually doing that?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: It doesn't happen as often as we'd like. And the ads that are being denied access are really egregiously awful ads. We would like the stations to say if it’s blatantly false, if it’s a clear-cut deception, say no to that ad. And that's happened in a few cases, too. But when we’ve gone to the stations and said we’d like to praise you for doing this, they say we’d prefer not to have that kind of publicity. And we know why. They want to make sure that they're not driving away those advertisers [LAUGHS] –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Just in case any of our listeners might be experiencing a shred of optimism, I would [LAUGHS] like to dash that immediately by quoting Ed Wasserman, who teaches journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University. Recently in the Denver Post, he cites a study by Timothy Karr of Free Press, which is a media watchdog group, which examined campaign ads on local TV networks in Tampa, Milwaukee, Las Vegas, Cleveland, Charlotte, key swing locations, and in Denver. Karr found that stations were getting a total of six and a half million dollars to air nearly 5,000 ads, while devoting less than 11 minutes to examining their truthfulness. That's a ratio of 162 ad minutes to one minute of criticism.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: We need more ad watching.
We need more good ad watching. However, by telling how many minutes of local news were being devoted to ad watching, you’re missing the fact that if those stations posted the ad watches online that content was available 24/7, and the ads actually aren't. And also, I have a real worry that if stations engage in good behavior and what they hear is a critique and they are singled out, in part because they are engaging the behavior –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm –
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: - that there are going to be people at the station level who are going to say, there just isn't any way to win here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: My feeling is that it's much more effective to condemn them.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: That's a different philo –
This is a different philosophy. And the – by praising, I am also trying to set an ideal to which stations should aspire, that the markets that have no fact checking or limited fact checking can turn to Denver and say profitable stations can continue to attract audiences by fact checking well and by posting those fact checks online.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Let me tell you one more thing that’s important. If only one out of four of those third party ads are deceptive and the ads recur and the themes recur, you don't need a great many ad watches to knock them down. The challenge for journalism is how would you create a second and third ad watch of exactly the same content because it's persistently in the market? How do we find a story structure that lets us say we fact checked this once before and, you know, it's still there?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Even though it isn't strictly speaking news anymore, it's still –
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Correct.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - as relevant as it was the first time it was reported.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: In some ways it's more relevant because the impact of the repeated airing is knocking down the corrective context. That's why I place so much hope in the capacity of the Internet to keep the corrections up 24/7.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you very much.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Take care.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Kathleen Hall Jamieson is professor of communications at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.