With Channel 4 leading the way, four Denver TV stations to fact-check political ads this election cycle

Channel 4 has jumped ahead of other Denver TV stations in fact-checking political ads so far this election cycle.

CBS4 has already aired segments analyzing 20 ads, over twice as many as 9News, its closest competitor among the four stations analyzing ads.

Sorry for the horse-race media criticism, but the numbers are worth pointing out, because Channel 4’s early analysis of the ads has undoubtedly been appreciated by regular people (none of whom read my blog), who’ve been trying to sort through all the political spots that have aired so early this election season.

“In the past, the ads didn’t start coming in nearly so soon or so often,” Denver Post Politics Editor Chuck Plunkett told me via email. “I’ve talked with national players who have visited Colorado this summer who couldn’t believe the number of ads that already were up and running.”

So it was a smart move for CBS4 to start dissecting the ads early, as part of its excellent “Reality Check” feature, led by “Political Specialist” Shaun Boyd. (Look for a post tomorrow with more on Boyd and Reality Check.)

“We’re committed to it,” said CBS4 News Director Tim Wieland. “We have a system in place that allows us to begin when the ads start rolling in. People are frustrated, and they want something that cuts through the BS. That’s the intent of this project.”

For its part, 9News is ramping up its ad-checking segments, called “Truth Tests,” with an idea that other media outlets may want to copy, straight up.

“Due to the sheer volume of political ads, 9NEWS has hired a team of three graduate students from the University of Denver to work as researchers for Truth Tests,” wrote 9News Political Reporter Brandon Rittiman, who’s the station’s primary Truth-Test reporter. “With the extra help, we hope to be able to tackle more ads than ever before this political season.”

9News, Denver’s NBC affiliate, will also work its newspaper partner, The Denver Post, according to Post Politics Editor Plunkett, with reporter Tim Hoover directing the coverage.

Channel 7’s “Truth Tracker” series is spearheaded by Producer/Presenter Marshall Zelinger, who’s scrutinized four ads so far and is scaling up the project now. Channel 7, Denver’s ABC affiliate, actually introduced the ad-checks to Denver TV viewers in the 1990’s, with reporter John Ferrugia’s “Truth Meter” series. It was later revived by Adam Schrager at 9News.

“I wanted to start a month earlier, because so many ads were rolling in,” Zelinger told me, adding that he plans to dedicate a significant amount of his time to Truth Tracker going forward, focusing on new ads and the ones airing the most.

For the first time, Fox 31, an independent station that’s become known as the local TV news leader in day-to-day political coverage, will produce a regular ad-check segment, called “Fact or Fiction,” anchored mostly by political reporter Eli Stokols. This might air once or twice weekly, Stokols emailed me, with a focus on “the most controversial ads and those airing the most frequently in Denver and around the state.”

Even though he’ll be fact-checking ads himself, Stokols is skeptical of his new endeavor, emailing me that, “especially now in this post-Citizens United world, [it] seems like a losing game of Whack-a-Mole — as soon as you finish checking one spot, it’s yesterday’s news and there are a dozen more popping up.”

“While campaigns are quick to cite such fact-checking spots in their effort to discredit opposition advertising, the campaigns we call out for blatant falsehoods don’t seem to care at all,” Stokols wrote. “And why should they? In a campaign that could see close to $1 billion in campaign spending, it’s inevitable that any TV ad, however false or misleading, will air hundreds of times, overwhelming any news outlet’s fact-check that might air a couple of times. Today’s campaign finance landscape enables political advertisements to have a reach that’s far wider than any fact-check — until, perhaps, the fact-check itself becomes part of a countering ad, just more noise in a never-ending echo chamber of allegations and attacks.”

Daily campaign-trail coverage and investigative journalism obviously had more of an impact than ad fact-checks in the last plagiarism-ridden election here, but political advertising can overwhelm all journalism, not just the stories fact-checking political ads. And the elucidation of facts can have an impact on the campaign trail, shaping the debate there, at press conferences and debates, for example, where they’re sometimes cited.

CBS4′s Boyd says in her normal reporting duties, covering events and such, she’ll often “turn a story and you don’t feel like you’ve influenced anyone.”

“Reality Check influences voters,” she told me. “I know that from the emails I receive.”

TV audiences pay attention to it.

“It’s the most popular thing we do in political coverage,” CBS4′s Wieland told me.

Maybe that’s because viewers don’t get enough day-to-day political journalism on local TV, like what you find in a newspaper, to get hooked on it. So the fact checking fills the void?

In any case, when you watch the ad-checks on TV, you can see why they work so well.

The ads themselves are usually already branded, if you will; they’re familiar to viewers. And the process of stopping and starting the ads, and analyzing segments with sharp graphics and simple analysis, is gripping, in its way.

The text-based fact-checking you’ve traditionally found in newspapers, without the video, doesn’t carry the same impact, at all.

The format for the fact-check segments at Denver TV stations varies a bit, but the basics are similar. Channel 7 provides a rating system with six options for the “facts” analyzed, including “misleading,” and “opinion.” 9News and CBS4 use a wider range of descriptions for the facts in question. And CBS4 concludes with a “Bottom Line” statement, which often offers a broader interpretation.

When Adam Schrager was at 9News, he actually taught people how to check ads themselves.

If you try it, you know how difficult it is to do. It’s hard to label the facts, found in a deliberately vague advertisement, as false or true, and partisans can almost always find something to get mad about.

But with an expanding sea of misinformation coming at us, the effort to shed nonpartisan light on political advertising is worth it. And the earlier the TV stations get started at it, like CBS4 did this election season, the better.

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