By Al Cross, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues
For the next month, most community newspapers will be busy covering election campaigns, and most of those will limit their coverage to local races. But state and federal offices are also on the ballot, and nationally the mid-term elections are shaping up as a referendum on one of the most controversial presidents ever. That could have a spillover effect on state and even local races.
Elections have always involved claims and counterclaims, and an essential part of political coverage is separating fact from fiction, and let voters know when they are being misled. But things are different this time, because the whole idea of independent journalism in search of truth is under attack. It’s time for newspapers to reclaim their role as the main finders and arbiters of fact, and not just locally.
Community newspapers exist for the benefit of their communities, but too many papers forget that their readers are also citizens of a congressional district, a state that has two senators, and the nation. Who helps them decide how to vote in such races?
Daily newspapers provide detailed coverage of state and federal races, but most of your readers probably don’t read a newspaper daily, or even a daily newspaper. They likely get most of their information about non-local races from television stations, which provide little in-depth coverage while they rake in millions for misleading ads that they rarely fact-check. We wrote about that on The Rural Bog at bit.ly/2xlfMwO.
What your readers get from TV isn’t likely to be of much help in casting a vote, so your newspaper can be a valuable, trusted source of information.
Television is actually a place to start, by picking apart those ads and giving voters the facts. Three national fact-checking services provide models, and if your state has a big Senate race, or even a hotly contested race for the House, they can provide analyses that you can use.
The services are Fact Checker, by Glenn Kessler at The Washington Post; PolitiFact, the Pulitzer-winning service of the Tampa Bay Times; and Factcheck.org, from the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, which allows free republication of its analyses.
Follow these services to keep current on issues, because federal races usually involve the same issues from state to state, and some of the same campaign spin. It’s important to keep current because these candidates may visit your locality only once, so you should be ready to do a first-class interview when they show up.
This election season, The Rural Blog is running a special feature each Monday with some of the most relevant analyses from FactCheck.org, because you can use that service without paying a fee or asking permission, and its analyses are usually the most detailed.
We started the series with a blog item about two unsubstantiated claims by President Trump on hurricane deaths and wind energy, and two recent examples of former President Obama cherry-picking information and downplaying how his administration dealt with Fox News. Read it at bit.ly/2NQ2Rwh.
Earlier, we did an item that fact-checked the president on immigration, with help from The Associated Press and USA Today, and provided resources for local reporting on the issue. You can read that item at bit.ly/2QyLj6u.
Around the same time, we did an item on The Fact Checker’s revelation that some campaigns have started “fact checking” sites that deal more in argument than fact. Read it at bit.ly/2QHgUDl. It’s another example of why it’s more important than ever for local and state news media to provide reliable fact checking.
The Fact Checker cooperates with local news media to fact-checking local and state leaders and members of Congress, especially those facing re-election. We did an item on that, with The Fact Checker’s contact information and a link to the form the Post uses to receive information on campaign claims. Read it at bit.ly/2MKe794.
Check The Rural Blog every Monday until the election for the latest relevant fact checks. And don’t be afraid to use your trusted position to be an arbiter of the facts. Your readers need it more than ever, and the will appreciate your efforts. Make it a regular column!
Al Cross (Twitter @ruralj) 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.