9News’ innovative fact-checking partnership with Denver Univeristy should be national model for local TV stations

During the last election, Denver’s local NBC affiliate (9News) hired Denver University graduate students to help reporters check the facts in election ads.

“We essentially created three temporary jobs with a set number of hours each week to study as many ads as possible,” 9News Assistant News Director Tim Ryan told me via email. “What we assumed, which turned out to be true, was that we would see an extraordinary number of political commercials in Colorado in 2012 and needed additional staff to keep up.”

Ryan says the additional help allowed 9News to produce 44 ad-check stories during the 2012 election cycle–and it gave the student researchers some real-life job experience.

“Our researchers produced very detailed examinations of each spot, then our permanent reporting staff (Brandon Rittiman, Chris Vanderveen, Matt Flener, Todd Walker) turned that detailed research into television stories,” wrote Ryan.

9News calls its ad-check stories  “Truth Tests,” and they won a Cronkite/Jackson prize and other national praise.

“The reason this was successful is all about volume.  At any point in time, there might be commercials from the Obama campaign, the Romney campaign, interest groups in support or opposition to both candidates, as well as a number of competitive congressional campaigns that also included spots produced by candidate campaigns as well as interest groups.  In other words, there was a tremendous stream of ad content that needed attention, and the only way to do that effectively is hire additional staff.”

Local TV stations should hire more real-life-professional journalists, but short of that, it’s a no brainer to employ graduate students for fact checking, especially in swing states where political ads bring in millions of dollars.

But Ryan doesn’t know of other stations that have done it. “We certainly think it could be a model for other organizations, but newsrooms would have to balance the cost vs. the number of spots requiring study.”

I checked around and it appears that no other station in Colorado–or the country–has tried a similar arrangement.

“I’m not aware of those relationships, but I wouldn’t be shocked if there were some,” said Mark Jurkowitz, Associate Director of the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. “Student journalists are contributing in more robust ways to news. In Boston, investigative journalist students have written for local media. Graduate students are 0ld enough to perform the task, under the assumption they’re properly trained to the point that you are confident they are looking at things the same way.”

Deborah Potter, who’s the Executive Director of NewsLab and writes frequently about the local TV news industry, doesn’t know of any other stations that have hired graduate students to “fact check” political ads.

“I’ve often wondered why more stations don’t partner with colleges and universities in their area on projects that involve research,” Potter emailed me. “As long as student work is supervised by professionals, I don’t see much downside in this kind of arrangement.”

“They were closely supervised and they trained in terms of reliable sources,” Ryan told me. “Their jobs didn’t require source building, or other pieces of journalism that are more difficult. It was database work. And at the end, the experienced political journalist had to decide what to call the ad. Was it true? Exaggerated?”

And if an error slipped through, Ryan said, 9News would hear about it. “As you know, the campaigns watch everything and would take issue with anything they thought was wrong. And we’d respond.”

Ryan expects to hire graduate students again for the 2014 election, but nothing is finalized. Until then, staff reporters will probably check political ads as they air.

I suggested that TV stations that are too stingy (sh0ck) even to hire grad students might partner with a professor and find a graduate seminar class to take on an ad-check project for free. No money!

Ryan said this could be a “definite possibility,” but cautioned that  “management could be a bit more challenging.”

“But if you had the right class, it could work, especially for stations that don’t have the resources,” Ryan told me, adding that his station “partnered” with Denver University to find graduate students this year, working with a DU staff person as a point of contact.

9News’ emphasis on fact-checking political ads began in 1998 as a series called “Spotcheck,” done in conjunction with Denver Post reporter Mark Obmascik, according to Ryan.

“In the 2002 cycle, we continued to work with the Post but called the project ‘Adwatch,'” Ryan wrote. “Adam Schrager began producing them as Truth Tests for the 2004 cycle, which we repeated in 06, 08 and 10 (as well as occasional off-year efforts like Denver mayoral campaigns).

The concept of checking political ads on local TV was apparently pioneered in Denver by Channel 7’s John Ferrugia, in a project called “Truth Meter” ,in the 1990s.


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