Insiders Discuss Fact Checking and the Presidental Election

by

Policy Intern Hunter Main

With campaign ads heating up along with the presidential race, how will journalists balance their obligations as truth tellers with their employers’ need for revenue? Journalists and media executives explored this question at Fact Checking the 2012 Election: Views from the Trenches, hosted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center. At the heart of the discussion were different ways that media can respond to inaccuracies in political advertisements.

When journalists fact check political ads, candidates are more likely to be truthful, according to journalists participating in a panel discussion moderated by FactCheck.org director Brooks Jackson. When unchallenged—or if the lie is effective enough—candidates generally repeat inaccuracies. Often times, they will only abandon an expedient lie when the media points it out.

The onslaught of third-party ads powered by potentially unlimited funding stemming from the Citizens United ruling has created a dilemma for television networks, according to networks executives that made up the second panel. On one hand, political advertisements generate a massive amount of revenue for the networks—more than $2.5 billion so far this year. On the other hand, networks are partially liable for any defamation or libel present in a third-party ad—this isn’t the case for candidate-sponsored ads. This creates a dilemma for the networks: truth versus money.

Three local news reporters that fact check political ads on air said during the third panel that viewers respond strongly to their reports, as indicated by a spike in emails and viewers. Ad buyers have reacted to these reports by increasingly citing sources for their claims, perhaps to forestall an appearance on these segments.

Third-party ads will vastly out-air less deceptive candidate-financed ads in 2012, according to Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Annenberg Public Policy director and organizer of the event, but we don’t know the extent to which television stations will alter, adapt, or refuse to air advertisements containing untruths.

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