What 2018 midterm campaign ads and Christmas cookies have in common

While reviewing thousands of political claims during midterm 2018 campaigns, it was hard to miss streams of look-alike messages

By Sydney McKinney & Alex Johnson – December 5, 2018 | Print this article

Same ad, different name, over and over again. Cookie-cutter ads, generic political ads used to promote or criticize multiple campaigns and candidates, were widely deployed during the 2018 North Carolina midterm elections.

As student journalists working on the North Carolina Fact-Checking Project, we spent  months sifting through thousands of campaign ads looking for political claims to fact-check. It didn’t take long to notice that many were nearly identical.

Sophomore Sydney McKinney

The copy-cat ads we encountered typically targeted groups of candidates, such as state House candidates from one party, and added their names to the same attack ad. That allowed  the opposing political party and their boosters to widely circulate messages about topics important to their base.

One reason for this is state political campaigns have become increasingly centralized in recent years, often run by political caucuses rather than individual candidates, said Gary Pearce, co-publisher of Talking About Politics, a blog about North Carolina and national politics.

Congressional campaign committees in Washington, D.C. as well as North Carolina legislative caucus committees conduct voter research and use the data to pinpoint issues that matter most to target voters during election season, he said.  

“Consistency amplifies the message,” Pearce said. “It makes sense for the caucuses to take on a specific set of issues that are important in this election and will rile the voters up.”

The N.C. Democratic Party used the carbon-copy ads to denounce lots of GOP candidates at once.

The North Carolina Democratic Party employed this technique often this year, producing ads that claimed Republicans would eliminate insurance coverage for pre-existing medical conditions, ignore polluted drinking water, even tolerate corruption within the state Republican Party.

Political Action Committees, such as the conservative North Carolina Values Coalition, employed a different strategy, also based on focused messaging. They published a series of same-design ads endorsing 13 North Carolina House and Senate candidates. They cited the same reasoning every time: the candidates supported “pro-life, pro-religious liberty, and pro-family public policy.”

The N.C. Values Coalition PAC used look-alike ads to promote candidates in line with its priorities.

“We aim to use a language that appeals to our coalition members, and creates brand familiarity,” said Jim Quick, the group’s media and communications director. “We want to show that we are laser focused on certain issues through repetition.”

Angie Holan, editor of the national fact-checking website PolitiFact, said such ads remain an inexpensive way to disseminate information. Despite this age of targeting marketing on the web and elsewhere, the persistence of this sort of marketing could be linked to U.S. voters’ increasing partisanship, she said.

Sophomore Alex Johnson

“We’re not seeing a lot of crossover or, frankly, a lot of complexity or nuance in most of the public policy positions politicians are taking. So that makes it very easy to do cookie cutter ads,” Holan said.

Colin Campbell, a North Carolina political reporter and columnist with The Insider, recently argued that the cookie cutter ads “dreamed up by young staffers sitting in a Raleigh office” may have hurt candidates in both parties during the 2018 campaign season.

For Democrats to win rural districts and Republicans to win urban districts, candidates need to switch their focus to local issues that people from all parties care about, Campbell argued. He pointed to State Rep. Ken Goodman, a Democrat who this fall won re-election in District 66, west of Fayetteville.

Goodman’s ads focused on increasing the amount of lottery money that goes towards public education, not an issue on the national or statewide Democratic agenda, Campbell noted. The moderate Democrat won re-election in a rural district, which required him to gain wide support.

Which way will political campaigns lean in the presidential election year 2020? Unknown. But student journalists in the Duke Reporters’ Lab will be watching.

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Lessons learned from fact-checking 2018 midterm campaigns

After monitoring political messaging, students see the need for accountability journalism more than ever

By Catherine Clabby – November 20, 2018 | Print this article

Five Duke undergraduates monitored thousands of political claims this semester during a heated midterm campaign season for the N.C. Fact-Checking Project.

That work helped expand nonpartisan political coverage in a politically divided state with lots of contested races for state and federal seats this fall. The effort resumes in January when the project turns its attention to a newly configured North Carolina General Assembly.

Three student journalists who tackled this work with fellow sophomores Alex Johnson and Sydney McKinney reflect on what they’ve learned so far.

Lizzie Bond

Lizzie Bond: After spending the summer working in two congressional offices on Capitol Hill, I began my work in the Reporters’ Lab and on the N.C. Fact-Checking Project with first-hand knowledge of how carefully elected officials and their staff craft statements in press releases and on social media. This practice derives from a fear of distorting the meaning or connotation of their words. And in this social media age where so many outlets are available for sharing information and for people to consume it, this fear runs deep.

Yet, it took me discovering one candidate for my perspective to shift on the value of our work with the N.C. Fact-Checking Project. That candidate, Peter Boykin, proved to be a much more complicated figure than any other politician whose social media we monitored. The Republican running to represent Greensboro’s District 58 in the General Assembly, Boykin is the founder of “Gays for Trump,” a former online pornography actor, a Pro-Trump radio show host, and an already controversial, far-right online figure with tens of thousands of followers. Pouring through Boykin’s nearly dozen social media accounts, I came across everything from innocuous self-recorded music video covers to contentious content, like hostile characterizations of liberals and advocacy of conspiracy theories, like one regarding the Las Vegas mass shooting which he pushed with little to no corroborating evidence.

When contrasting Boykin’s posts on both his personal and campaign social media accounts with the more cautious and mild statements from other North Carolina candidates, I realized that catching untruthful claims has a more ambitious goal that simply detecting and reporting falsehoods. By reminding politicians that they should be accountable to the facts in the first place, fact-checking strives to improve their commitment to truth-telling. The push away from truth and decency in our politics and toward sharp antagonism and even alternate realities becomes normalized when Republican leaders support candidates like Boykin as simply another GOP candidate. The N.C. Fact-Checking Project is helping to revive truth and decency in North Carolina’s politics and to challenge the conspiracy theories and pants-on-fire campaign claims that threaten the self-regulating, healthy political society we seek.

Ryan Williams

Ryan Williams: I came into the Reporters’ Lab with relatively little journalism experience. I spent the past summer working on social media outreach & strategy at a non-profit where I drafted tweets and wrote the occasional blog post. But I’d never tuned into writing with the immense brevity of political messages during an election season. The N.C. Fact-Checking Project showed me the importance of people who not only find the facts are but who report them in a nonpartisan, objective manner that is accessible to an average person.

Following the 2016 election, some people blamed journalists and pollsters for creating false expectations about who would win the presidency. I was one of those critics. In the two and a half months I spent fact-checking North Carolina’s midterm races, I learned how hard fact-checkers and reporters work. My fellow fact-checkers and I compiled a litany of checkable claims made by politicians this midterm cycle. Those claims, along with claims found by the automated claim-finding algorithm ClaimBuster were raw material for many fact-checks of some of North Carolina hottest races. Those checks were made available for voters ahead of polling.

Now that election day has come and gone, I am more than grateful for this experience in fact-finding and truth-reporting. Not only was I able to hone research skills, I gained a deeper understanding of the intricacies of political journalism. I can’t wait to see what claims come out of the next two years leading up to, what could be, the presidential race of my lifetime.

Jake Sheridan

Jake Sheridan: I’m a Carolina boy who has grown up on the state’s politics. I’ve worked on campaigns, went to the 2012 Democratic National Committee in my hometown of Charlotte and am the son of a long-time news reporter. I thought I knew North Carolina politics before working in the Reporter’s Lab. I was wrong.

While trying to wrap my head around the 300-plus N.C. races, I came to better understand the politics of this state. What matters in the foothills of the Piedmont, I found out, is different than what matters on the Outer Banks and in Asheville. I discovered that campaigns publicly release b-roll so that PACs can create ads for them and saw just how brutal attack ads can be. I got familiar with flooding and hog farms, strange politicians and bold campaign claims.

There was no shortage of checkable claims. That was good for me. But it’s bad for us. I trust politicians less now. The ease with which some N.C. politicians make up facts troubles me. Throughout this campaign season in North Carolina, many politicians lied, misled and told half truths. If we want democracy to work — if we want people to vote based on what is real so that they can pursue what is best for themselves and our country — we must give them truth. Fact-checking is essential to creating that truth. It has the potential to place an expectation of explanation upon politicians making claims. That’s critical for America if we want to live in a country in which our government represents our true best interests and not our best interests in an alternate reality.

 

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Catherine Clabby joins the Duke Reporters’ Lab

The veteran journalist will manage student research projects, including the Tech & Check Cooperative.

By Bill Adair – July 30, 2018 | Print this article

Catherine Clabby, an award-winning reporter and editor, has been named the new research and communications manager in the Duke Reporters’ Lab. In that role, Clabby will help direct student research on political fact-checking and automated journalism, including the Tech & Check Cooperative.

In addition to her work in the Lab, Clabby will teach Newswriting and Reporting (PJMS 367), a core course in the journalism program in the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media & Democracy.

Clabby is a veteran journalist who most recently covered environmental health topics for the North Carolina Health News. Before that, she was the senior editor of the E.O. Wilson Life on Earth biology book series and a senior editor at American Scientist magazine.

From 1994 to 2007, she was a reporter at the Raleigh News & Observer where she covered science, medicine and a variety of state and local topics, including a U.S. Senate race. She left the paper in 2007 to take a year-long Knight Science Journalism fellowship at MIT.

Clabby lives in Durham with her husband, Christoph Guttentag, Duke’s dean of undergraduate admissions. Their daughter is a college student in Massachusetts.

 

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Rebecca Iannucci

[PHOTOS] The Reporters’ Lab takes on Global Fact 4 in Madrid

Six team members from the Lab traveled to Spain for the annual summit of fact-checkers around the world

By Rebecca Iannucci – July 14, 2017 | Print this article

The Reporters’ Lab team recently spent five days in Spain, exploring the future of fact-checking — but we left plenty of time for churros, chocolate and an unusual fish concoction called Gulas.

Six team members from the Lab — co-directors Bill Adair and Mark Stencel, project manager Rebecca Iannucci, student researcher Riley Griffin, Share the Facts project manager Erica Ryan and developer Chris Guess — traveled to Madrid July 4-9 for Global Fact 4, the annual gathering of the world’s fact-checkers.

But even though the trip was primarily for business, there were ample opportunities to explore and enjoy the city. Among the highlights: a trip to El Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, home to Picasso’s Guernica; a taste of Basque tapas at the restaurant Txapela; and plenty of people-watching at El Mercado de San Miguel. (Oh, and did we mention the churros?)

Below, scroll through assorted scenes from Madrid, then click here for more coverage of Global Fact 4.

(L-R) Mark Stencel, Rebecca Iannucci and Riley Griffin enjoy churros at Chocolatería San Ginés.
(L-R) Bill Adair, Rebecca Iannucci and Erica Ryan get some work done at Campus Madrid.
Rebecca Iannucci presents the Reporters’ Lab’s FactPopUp tool to the Global Fact 4 audience. Photo credit: Mario Garcia.
Rebecca Iannucci presents the Reporters’ Lab’s FactPopUp tool to the Global Fact 4 audience. Photo credit: Mario Garcia.
Global Fact 4 boasted 188 attendees from 53 countries. Photo credit: Mario Garcia.
Rebecca Iannucci poses in front of Campus Madrid’s signage.
Bill Adair leads a standing ovation for Alexios Mantzarlis, director of the International Fact-Checking Network and organizer of Global Fact 4. Photo credit: Mario Garcia.
Rebecca Iannucci tries Gulas, a shredded fish dish, at El Mercado de San Miguel.
(L-R) Rising Duke senior Alex Newhouse, Riley Griffin, Erica Ryan and Rebecca Iannucci, after lunch in La Plaza Mayor.
(L-R) Riley Griffin, Bill Adair, Erica Ryan and Rebecca Iannucci, after lunch in La Plaza Mayor.
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Students selected for research work at Duke Reporters’ Lab

Eight undergraduates will assist with news experiments and help explore the future of journalism.

By Mark Stencel – September 14, 2015 | Print this article

Student researchers play leading roles at the Duke Reporters’ Lab, experimenting with new forms of storytelling and exploring the state of newsroom innovation.

With the start of a new academic year, a team of eight students are donning white lab coats to help us map the future of journalism. Their involvement is one of the things that makes the Lab such a lively place (especially for this Duke newcomer).

These students will investigate ways to create new “structured” story forms that allow journalists to present information in engaging, digital-friendly ways. They also will track and help foster the work of political fact-checkers that are holding politicians around the world accountable for their statements and their promises.

We’ve just completed hiring our 2015-2016 team:

Natalie Ritchie: Over the summer, Natalie was a reporter for Structured Stories NYC — the Reporters’ Lab effort to test a new storytelling tool in the wilds of New York politics. She is co-editor in chief of the Duke Political Review. A public policy senior with a focus on international affairs, Natalie previously interned with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, worked as a student communications assistant for the Duke Global Health Institute, and taught English to Iraqi, Palestinian, and Syrian refugees in Jordan. In addition, she interned for Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, her home state.

Ryan Hoerger: The sports editor of The Chronicle, Duke’s student newspaper, is a senior from California double-majoring in public policy and economics. Last summer Ryan covered financial markets as an intern for Bloomberg. Before that, he interned for Duke magazine and conducted policy research during a summer stint at FasterCures. He is currently finishing up an undergraduate honors thesis that examines federal incentives for pharmaceutical research and development.

Shannon Beckham: Shannon, a public policy senior from Arizona, has seen how political fact-checking works from both sides of the process, having interned in the White House speechwriting office and at PolitiFact, the Pulitzer-winning service run by the Tampa Bay Times. She worked for the Chequeado fact-checking site in Buenos Aires, where she assisted with a 2014 meeting of Latin American fact-checkers. At the Reporters Lab, she helped start our database of fact-checking sites and organize the first Global Fact-Checking Summit last year in London.

Gautam Hathi: A junior in computer science who grew up near the Microsoft campus in Redmond, Wash., Gautam is already working at the intersection of news and technology. Having interned for Google and 3Sharp, the computer science major is now the digital content director for The Chronicle at Duke. He previously was The Chronicle’s health and science editor and is a contributing editor for the Duke Political Review.

Shaker Samman: Shaker is a public policy junior from Michigan. At the Reporters’ Lab, he worked on fact-checking and structured journalism prototypes and co-authored a PolitifFact story on the North Carolina Senate race with Lab co-director Bill Adair. He has interned as a reporter for the Tampa Bay Times in Florida and The Times Herald in Port Huron, Mich., where he also worked on his high school radio station.

Claire Ballentine: Claire is head of the university news department at The Chronicle. She began working for the Lab last year, helping update our database of political fact-checkers. The sophomore from Tennessee also has blogged for Her Campus and worked as an editing intern for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park Association. She was the editor-in-chief of her high school yearbook.

Jillian Apel: Jill brings an eye for visual storytelling to the Lab. A sophomore from California with a passion for writing as well, she was the managing editor of the student newspaper at the Brentwood School in Los Angeles.

Julia Donheiser: Julia’s data savvy comes via a social science research project she started as a student at the Bronx High School of Science. With guidance from a pair of educational psychologists, she crunched statewide numbers from school districts across New York to investigate the effects of various social factors on diagnosis rates for autism and learning disabilities. Now a freshman at Duke, she worked on the student newspaper at her high school. She also wrote a food blog that will make you hungry.

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