Academics and Research

Truth squad: Students check the facts behind campaign ads

It will come as a surprise to no one that political ads frequently bend the truth. But determining just how much the truth is being distorted in any given TV commercial is now a part-time job for three University of Denver students.

Hannah Eddy, an MBA candidate in the Daniels College of Business, and public policy master’s students Emily Lande and Emily Parker have been working since August as part of the 9News “Truth Test” team, fact-checking Barack Obama and Mitt Romney campaign ads.

“I’ve always been interested in politics, especially national politics, so that sparked my interest. I’m also working on the presidential debate, so I thought that would tie in nicely, being on both the media side and the debate side of things,” says Parker, who is one of chairs for volunteer coordination and ticket lottery allocation for the Oct. 3 presidential debate at the University.

The students work out of the Channel 9 newsroom eight hours each week, collaborating with executive producer Mark Yoder and political reporter Brandon Rittiman for a series of videos that examine the claims made in each ad. Reviewing an ad from the pro-Romney SuperPAC Restore Our Future, for example, Rittiman finds the claim that Romney “spent his life in the private sector” an overstatement, as Romney also spent four years as governor of Massachusetts. Meanwhile, an examination of an Obama campaign ad finds false the claim that Romney and vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan both would outlaw abortion in cases of rape and incest. “This claim describes Ryan’s position,” Rittiman says, “but not Romney’s.”

“Every time a new ad is released we get an email that says, ‘here’s the ad,’ and then we usually contact both the Obama campaign and the Romney campaign to see if they have any prepared statements on the ad. Then we try to figure out the whole story behind the ad,” Parker says. “We look at a lot of newspaper articles; if there are quotes, we try to find the original source of the quote and the context that it’s taken out of.”

Neither Lande nor Parker is surprised at the amount of spin they see in the commercials, but Lande—who grew up in Oregon and worked for three years on the House committee on natural resources in Washington, D.C.—says she is surprised at the amount of strategy that goes into them.

“It’s a really unique thing to be in a battleground state and see how different issues are played up or down depending on what constituencies they’re looking to grab the attention of and get the votes of,” she says. “And the making of ads happens so much faster than it used to—[it’s amazing] that something can come out in the news and two days later there can be a very complete and polished ad that speaks directly to that issue. The ads are really relevant to what’s being discussed on the campaign trail and in the media.”



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