Fact checking is important during presidential race

April 5, 2016

By Al Cross
Into the Issues

This year’s presidential race has been one of the ugliest and intriguing we’ve ever had, and it could be one of the most momentous. It has overshadowed thousands of state and local races, which are the main political interest of community newspapers.

Community papers emphasize local races, do much less with statewide races, and hardly anything with the presidential election. But in taking those passes, especially this year, they’re missing an opportunity to engage with their readers and serve them. 

If you’re a daily newspaper, just using The Associated Press gives no local flavor to state stories, and, rarely, state flavor to national stories.

If you’re a weekly, chances are that most of your readers don’t read a daily newspaper with any regularity. So where are they going to get most of their information about the election? TV, which may do a good job covering the horse race, does a poor job of helping voters evaluate the candidates.

In 2008, we measured the news and commercials about Kentucky’s U.S. Senate race in the Lexington TV market, the largest one completely within the state. We found that the time devoted to ads was 30 times greater than the time devoted to news, and almost all the news was superficial, giving little guidance to voters.

Since then, social media sites have driven an explosion of misinformation, making straight coverage and fact-checking more important than ever.

Providing at least some coverage of state and national races can build, maintain and strengthen your newspaper’s brand and authority. Your readers are not just citizens of your locality; they are citizens of your state and our nation, and they need the same reliable information about state and national candidates that is provided by big dailies. And a lot of them are talking about these races.

Some of them are even contributing to the candidates, and contributors can be found in any community—even contributors to presidential candidates. It’s easy to look them up on the Federal Election Commission website at fec.gov/disclosure/PState.do. From that page you can select lists by the first three ZIP code digits, or download all the contributors from your state.

Of course, there’s a story in who contributed what to whom, but the better story is usually why they contributed. In races for Congress or president, givers are less likely to have business reasons for giving than in local or state races, and they’re more likely to give because they believe in a candidate. Those beliefs can help connect the bigger races to your locality.

So, what do you cover? It can be as simple as checking the facts, and/or publishing articles by reliable national fact checkers. Research has shown that readers learn from fact checks, and community newspapers are still trusted sources of information.

The truth has been a major casualty of this year’s presidential campaign—in debates, other televised appearances, TV commercials and direct mail. It’s unlikely to get any better.

Donald J. Trump seems likely to be the Republican nominee, and “since Trump never takes anything back—and often repeats the same false claims—voters are likely to hear these time and again during the campaign season,” Glenn Kessler, who oversees The Fact Checker column for The Washington Post, wrote March 22.

Trump has plenty of bad company. Fact-checkers have also found much fault with the statements of his main rival, Ted Cruz, and the likely Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton.

The best source for fact-checking articles about presidential and senatorial candidates is FactCheck.org, a service of the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. It’s the best source because it’s free, dependable and authoritative, with no axes to grind and no gimmicks—like the Pinocchios that Kessler awards or the “Pants on Fire” label that Politifact.com puts on outrageously false statements.

 Reading fact-checkers can help you do your own fact checking. Here are some guides for fact-checking, adapted from “A Crash Course to Fact-Checking Journalism,” a webinar presented by Jane Elizabeth of the American Press Institute:

Look for alleged facts that can actually be checked, not opinions. A statement may need a fact check if it sounds too good or too awful to be true, is extremely precise or extremely broad, seems designed to scare or anger, uses unattributed research (such as a vague citation of “studies”) or absolutes (“a 20 percent cut for every student”). Also, misspellings and bad grammar can be signs of misinformation.

Sources are critical. Make sure your sources are free of partisanship and advocacy. If you think a news story is off base, check the original sources on which that story is based, such as legislative or congressional records. Make your sources as specific and original as possible; data and documents are preferable to news reports.

When I covered politics for a living, one of my favorite pieces of work was picking apart broadcast commercials and direct mail ads—explaining how the facts were being shaded, twisted or ignored. When fact-checking ads, it can help to analyze the strategies and visuals. Sometimes what is seen is more important than what is said. Learn the various tools of deception so you can alert your readers to them.

If you would like help or advice checking facts, e-mail me at al.cross@uky.edu or call 859-257-3744. If I’m out and you’re on deadline, call my cell, 502-682-2848.

 

Al Cross edited and managed weekly newspapers before spending 26 years at The (Louisville) Courier-Journal and serving as president of the Society of Professional Journalists. Since 2004, he has been director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based at the University of Kentucky. See www.RuralJournalism.org and The Rural Blog at http://irjci.blogspot.com.

 

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