Wednesday, October 01, 2008

How to "Truth Check" a Campaign Ad

Stories sifting fact from fantasy in campaign ads are becoming more frequent as checking them becomes easier to do. Here are some examples in print and broadcast.

Some pointers for doing your own 'Truth Check' story:

1. Insist that candidates provide sources to back up their advertising allegations. Most will. In fact, check the sponsor's Web site first. If they refuse to offer proof, you've got a story they're really going to hate.

2. Most often, candidates will point to their opponents' voting records. Look up the bills and votes yourself. Don't rely on their opponents' "spin." If we're talking about state legislation, go to the Montana's Legislature's site. Click on "bills" for the right session. You can search by bill number, sponsor or general topic. It's easy to verify a vote or see what a bill would do, but often the bill's costs are the issue, so be sure to look at the "fiscal note," which is the state's best guess at costs for taxpapers. If we're talking about federal legislation, go to the Library of Congress' Web site.

3. After you've seen the facts, bounce your finding off of both candidates or their people. You can include their reaction in your story. They may offer you more context or sources, too.

Some pitfalls:

A. Make sure you're reporting a candidate's final vote on the issue at hand. Legislators may vote many times on a single bill: at the committee stage, on amendments to a bill and finally on the bill as amended. Here's an example: In 1997, state Sen. Mike Taylor initially voted to deregulate the wholesale price of electricity, a highly controversial idea in Montana. But he changed his mind on the third and final vote, making him one of the few Republicans to ultimately reject the idea. He's running this year for the state's Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities.

B. The questions legislators face are not always black and white. For example, a legislator could support a sale tax as an additional tax or as a substitue for eliminating or cutting other taxes. The effect on taxpayers could vary enormously.

C. Beware of singling out a lawmaker's vote as his or her only vote on some controversial issue. Often Democrats and Republicans will offer similar solutions to some problem. A Republican legislator who votes against a Democratic version may vote for his party's solution instead.

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