Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Search for Truth in Political Advertising Captures Interest of Foreign Delegation; Highlights Need for Fact Checking

By Steve Hallock
Truth was the primary subject of the day in the conference room of GlobalPittsburgh last Friday. The eight foreign journalists and politicians visiting the Pittsburgh as part of a tour to observe and learn about the 2012 presidential election wondered why we Americans and our media allow blatant lies to enter the discussion.

The group of journalists and
politicians from Indonesia,
Singapore, France and Sweden
during one of their meetings
in Pittsburgh last week.
Beyond the obvious First Amendment concerns, this is an important question, and an ironic one, considering the parties – besides the politicians – most involved in disseminating political information: the journalism and advertising industries. The first tenet of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics admonishes, “Seek Truth and Report It; Journalists should be honest, fair and courageous in gathering and interpreting information.” This includes the sub-tenet: “Test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error. Deliberate distortion is never permissible.”

And here is the first principle of the American Advertising Federation’s Institute for Advertising Ethics: “Advertising, public relations, marketing communications, news, and editorial all share a common objective of truth and high ethical standards in serving the public.”

Deliberate distortion? Inadvertent error? A common objective of truth? Are they kidding? Anybody who paid attention to the campaign, and the presidential debates in particular, must be snorting derisive laughter about now.

As I discussed with the foreign delegation, this is not a new phenomenon. Truth has been hostage in American political process since the days of Washington and Jefferson; but, as we all agreed, the big lie and the accompanying negativity have grown even bigger in this era of immense media dynamics that has come to include not only the newspapers of yore but also television, radio and the blogosphere. The lies are louder now and repeated more often to the extent that they play a greater role not only in setting the public agenda but in shaping it.

Little, other than self-policing, can be done about misinformation in the world of advertising, especially in the dominant media format of broadcast – given traditional Federal Communications Commission reluctance to police the industry and considering the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court Citizens United ruling that defined inanimate corporations as people with the right to spend unlimited amounts of money on even a distorted or false message.

Journalists, though, can put aside the false god of objectivity on behalf of the larger principle truth.

This is why I agreed with the visiting journalists and politicians in their approval of CNN correspondent Candy Crowley’s real-time fact-checking during the second presidential debate, when Republican candidate Mitt Romney wrongly claimed that President Barack Obama had taken 14 days to identify the attack on the Libyan consulate as the work of terrorists. Crowley interjected, to the audience’s applause, that the president actually had invoked “terrorism” terminology the day after the attack.

Crowley stepped beyond the role of moderator and donned her garb as journalist. Her unexpected baring of Romney’s deceit suggested a possible remedy to the problem of how the media can cut through the thick underbrush of distortion and obfuscation that dominate today’s political campaigns.

I told the small international entourage during our conversation that journalism instructors strive to push students toward understanding the difference between accurate reporting and truthful reporting. Accuracy is, of course, important. When journalists quote public officials, even when those officials are telling lies, they must quote them accurately. But it is not enough to be accurate. Nor is it enough to be balanced – to report, for example, that a mayor has accused a city councilman of accepting bribes and to get the other side by reporting the councilman’s denial. The journalist’s responsibility, in the role as government watchdog, is to report whether such pronouncements are true.

Crowley is on to something. As the nation ponders the meaning and lessons of its most recent national and local elections, those responsible for delivering the messages should also consider how they can do it better next time – in a way that serves not only the audience but also the democracy the Fourth Estate is supposed to monitor. In this era of live media everywhere all the time, on-the-spot media fact-delivery would be a welcome prescription.

Next-day analysis, after the majority of Americans have watched the debates and gone to bed, certainly is worthwhile. But it comes late, after the initial message has settled into the nation’s subconscious – after the damage of the deception has been largely done.

In future debates, moderators should build upon the Crowley initiative and become more than time-keepers. Let them instead enter the debate realm as well-informed keepers of the facts. Let them give fair warning to candidates that any lies detected during the course of the debate or during interviews for public consumption will be subject to verification – in the same piece reporting their utterances.

In his 1849 essay on civil disobedience, Henry David Thoreau wrote that if one honest man would stand up against slavery, that would be the beginning of the end of slavery. In this campaign season, one broadcast journalist stood up against a campaign lie. If others would follow this lead, we might see, if not an end to the lies, at least more reluctance to deceive.

Steve Hallock is director of the School of Communication at Point Park University in Pittsburgh.

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