October 26, 2016

A new campaign ad for Republican Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina escalates the use of fact-checking as a means of attack in the 2016 election — and in this case the truth takes a hit.

Attack ads by candidates and their supporters often deploy media fact checks to provide cover for a number of claims in races across the country. The increasing “weaponization” of fact-checking  — a trend I detailed for Politico last year — is a byproduct of the growing movement in journalism to scrutinize political messages for their accuracy.

So it’s no surprise to find this tactic in use in North Carolina, a presidential swing state where several news organizations have also committed local reporting power to fact-check claims in the close races for Senate and governor.

The 30-second commercial that Burr’s campaign released this week puts fact-checking front and center. It highlights Democratic challenger Deborah Ross’ position on the state’s sex offender registry, relying on two media fact checks while distorting the truth about one of them.

The ad portrays a daughter showing her mother the two news reports on her laptop while they talk in a kitchen. The daughter first shows her mother an Oct. 14 fact-checking segment that aired on Charlotte-area CBS affiliate WBTV. Clips from the TV story play on the screen of the daughter’s laptop.

In one shot, an on-screen graphic rates a Ross ad “false” for statements about her legislative voting record. “It says Deborah Ross’ ad is completely false where she voted to strengthen the sex offender registry,” the daughter says in her scripted summary of the news story.

Another shot from the same TV report shows that the fact-checker rated a Burr ad “true” for its claim that Ross opposed creating the sex offender registry. The ad makers reinforce that point by superimposing text in a graphic made to look like it is part of the news report: “Richard Burr’s ad found true.”

Despite that small bit of doctoring, the text on the screen and the daughter’s summary accurately describe the gist of the WBTV report. In it, reporter Nick Ochsner found that an earlier Burr attack ad was true when it said Ross lobbied against the creation of the state sex offender registry in 1995. It also said that counterclaims in Ross’ subsequent response ad were false.

The Burr team’s use of that particular fact check is on solid footing, but as the ad continues, the daughter’s description mischaracterizes a second article. “It looks like her other ads are false as well,” the daughter says, as the camera shows an Oct. 18 report from PolitiFact North Carolina, a project of the News & Observer in Raleigh.

That report, which was written and edited by PolitiFact’s national team, examined yet another Ross ad. And PolitiFact rated Ross’ answer “half true” — a midway point in its rating system (and far from its lowest rating, “Pants on Fire”).

The Ross spot said Burr had voted against reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act in 2012. According to PolitiFact, Ross’ response was accurate about one Burr vote that year, but it ignored three other times when he voted for the measure. “Is Ross’ ad correct? In part, but it leaves out important context,” the fact-checker reported.

But that’s not how Burr’s ad characterized it. The daughter’s narration called the Ross spot — and her “other ads” — false. The fact check shown in the ad only examined one of her spots, and is the only fact-checked by PolitiFact’s North Carolina affiliate.

“So Deborah Ross is lying about Richard Burr to fool us into voting for her?” the mother asks at the end of Burr’s commercial.

“Mom, facts don’t lie,” the daughter answers. “We simply can’t trust Deborah Ross.”

Actually, what we can’t trust is the use of fact-checking in ads like this one — at least not without carefully checking each of those citations to see if the media reports say what the commercials claim they say.

Ad-makers are often careful to portray the fact checks more accurately, as was the case in two other recent commercials from the North Carolina Senate race. One from the nonprofit advocacy group Americans for Prosperity goes after Ross for her support of the Affordable Care Act by repeating PolitiFact’s 2013 “Lie of the Year” — President Obama’s promise that “if you like your health care plan, you can keep it.” — projected on the side of a house.

In another ad, the Emily’s List super PAC Women’s Vote selectively — but accurately — cited a PolitiFact North Carolina item to claim that Burr earned $3.6 million while serving in Congress.

In most cases, political ads cite fact checks in small font at the bottom of the screen, like a footnote. Ad-makers include these references to give their messages authority — a tactic that helps underscore the power of this kind of journalism. But that doesn’t mean those and other citations always say what the ads imply.

The message for voters: Check the facts for yourself. The message to the media fact-checkers: Be on the lookout for erroneous and misleading references to your own work.

Rebecca Iannucci of the Duke Reporters’ Lab contributed to this report.

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Mark Stencel (@markstencel) is co-director of the Duke Reporters' Lab, where he studies the spread and impact of political fact-checking. He is NPR's former managing…
Mark Stencel

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