Repoeters' Lab map

Fact-checking booms as numbers grow by 20 percent

With fact-checkers gathering for annual Global Fact summit, a Reporters’ Lab tally finds 17 new projects around the world. (But still not in Antarctica.)

By Mark Stencel – June 30, 2017 | Print this article

The 200-person attendee list for next week’s Global Fact 4 summit in Madrid is up 80 from last year’s meeting in Buenos Aires, and more than twice what it was in London two years ago. And with good reason: The number of fact-checkers has been growing too, driven by concerns about a global epidemic of misinformation, viral hoaxes and official lying.

The Duke Reporters’ Lab database of international fact-checking initiatives now counts 126 active projects in 49 countries. That’s up 20 percent from the 105 projects we tallied a year ago. And that year-over-year increase continues the growth we found in for our most recent annual fact-checking census in February.

Active Fact-Checkers by Continent
Africa: 4
Asia: 14
Australia: 2
Europe: 46
North America: 47
South America: 13

NOTE: All the numbers presented throughout this article are as of June 30, 2017. An updated map, global tally and country-by-country lists are available on the Reporters’ Lab fact-checking page.

It’s great to see so many new sites: 17 of the 126 fact-checkers opened for business in the past 12 months. One of the newest, the Ferret Fact Service in Edinburgh, launched just nine weeks ago. And there was the welcome return of Australia’s ABC. Government funding cuts ended that project last year, but it returned from an 11-month hiatus on June 5 as a jointly branded partnership of the public broadcasting company and RMIT University in Melbourne. And the same Toronto-based team of technology activists that built a site four years ago to track Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s campaign promises launched a new fact-checking service in April: Fact-Nameh (“The Book of Facts”), the PolitiFact of Iran.

Of the fact-checkers that launched in the past year, seven were in Europe, four were in North America, three were in Asia and three were in South America. And all appeared in countries with roiling political situations plagued by false claims and misinformation that made global headlines — from presidential impeachments (Brazil and South Korea) to an attempted coup (Turkey) to intense immigration fights (everywhere!) to nationwide campaigns and voting (South Korea and Turkey again, plus Austria, Iran, Italy, Kosovo, the U.K and, um, the U.S. — with Germany’s turn coming in September).

If ever there was a time for fact-checking, this was it.

The United States is home to a third (42) of the fact-checkers we track. We also found that 16 other countries have at least two fact-checking projects, and seven of those have three or more, including Brazil (8), the United Kingdom (6), France (5), South Korea (5), Ukraine (4) and Canada (3).

We saw an encouraging sign about quality: One-fifth of the fact-checkers in the database (25 of the 126) are already verified signatories of International Fact-Checking Network’s newly established Code of Principles. And that number will grow because independent evaluators are reviewing additional applications. The code was written by an IFCN committee last summer to encourage best practices such as fairness, a commitment to correcting errors, and transparency on sources, methodology and funding. Facebook is using IFCN’s Code to identify trustworthy non-partisan fact-checking partners to help flag fake news and other misinformation.

Most of the sites, about six out of 10, are affiliated with established news media organizations. The rest are a mix of independent journalism and research projects, many of which are affiliated with universities, think tanks and non-governmental groups instead of existing media companies.

The ties to media companies are especially common in the United States, where 83 percent of fact-checkers (35 of 42) are operated by or closely affiliated with bigger news organizations. In the rest of the world, a bit over half (44 of 84, or 52 percent) have direct news media ties. But that mix may be shifting. In our 2016 census, less than half of the fact-checkers outside the U.S. were part of a larger media house (24 of 55, or 44 percent).

If you’re keeping track of all these numbers, you better write them down in pencil and be ready for updates. We still have a pending list of other fact-checkers we need to evaluate, including some whose staff we look forward to meeting at the Madrid summit. (Here’s an explanation of how the Reporters’ Lab identifies the fact-checkers we include in our database. In addition to journalism that fairly examines the accuracy of statements by public figures and institutions, we also look for authoritative, nonpartisan reporting on the progress of political promises and the credibility of widely shared online sources of information and misinformation.)

The healthy growth we’ve measured since last year’s Global Fact conference comes even after we had to move more than a dozen other fact-checkers to inactive status. In fact, at this point we have a list of more than five dozen inactive fact-checking initiatives.

That kind of fluctuation and turnover is consistent with the natural attrition we’ve tracked over the past several years — with many fact-checkers springing up for campaigns and then going dark. Some election-oriented fact-checkers will reliably return for the next campaign. That requires us to continuously determine which projects are hibernating comfortably and which have met their ultimate fact-checking fate. But since we can now base those choices on several years of observation, we now leave these seasonal fact-checkers marked as “active” in our database, noting their campaign focus in our descriptions. And we are continuously finding established fact-checkers who previously escaped our notice, which also adds to the growing tally. If you’re one of them, please let us know.

The Reporters’ Lab is a project of the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media & Democracy at Duke University’s Sanford School for Public Policy. We started the fact-checking database three years ago to track the reach and impact of this journalism. It also supports the Lab’s efforts to develop tools and services that help fact-checkers report and disseminate their work to a bigger audience. That includes Share the Facts, a project that helps fact-checkers distribute their reporting on other websites and platforms, including devices such as the Amazon Echo. Google also has used the Lab’s fact-checking database in its recent efforts to elevate fact-checks in search results and on the redesigned Google News page.

This update is based on research compiled over several months in part by Reporters’ Lab student researcher Hank Tucker. Alexios Mantzarlis of the Poynter Institute’s International Fact-Checking Network also contributed, as did Reporters’ Lab director Bill Adair, Knight Professor for the Practice of Journalism and Public Policy at Duke University (and founder of PolitiFact). Thanks also to Cristina Tardáguila of Agência Lupa in Brazil, Itziar Bernaola of El Objetivo in Spain, Boyoung Lim of Newstapa in South Korea, and many other fact-checkers around the world who help us keep up with this fast-growing form of journalism.

Please send updates and additions to Reporters’ Lab co-director Mark Stencel (mark.stencel@duke.edu).

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Heroes or hacks: The partisan divide over fact-checking

We analyzed nearly 800 references to fact-checking and found a stark divide. Liberal writers like fact-checking; conservatives don't.

By Bill Adair & Rebecca Iannucci – June 7, 2017 | Print this article

Conservative writers aren’t fond of fact-checking. They belittle it and complain that it’s biased. They say it’s “left-leaning” and use sarcastic quotes (“fact-checking”) to suggest it’s not legitimate. One writer likens PolitiFact to a Bangkok prostitute.

Liberal writers admire fact-checking. They cite it favorably and use positive adjectives such as “independent”  and “nonpartisan.” They refer to fact-checkers as “watchdogs” and “heroes.”

To examine partisan differences over fact-checking, we analyzed some of the most widely read conservative and liberal sites. Our students in the Duke Reporters’ Lab identified 792 statements that referred to fact-checkers or their work. We found a stark partisan divide in the tone, the type of references and even the adjectives the writers used.

Our report, Heroes or hacks: The partisan divide over fact-checking, reveals a serious problem for the growing number of fact-checkers, journalists who research and rate the accuracy of political statements. They emphasize their neutrality and nonpartisan approach, but they face relentless criticism from the political right that says they are biased and incompetent.

Our analysis found:

  • Liberal websites were far more likely to cite fact-checks to make their points than conservative sites were.
  • Conservative sites were much more likely to criticize fact-checks and to allege partisan bias.
  • When our student researchers categorized the tone of mentions, we found liberal sites made most of the positive references, while the negative references came primarily from the right.
  • Conservative sites made the most critical comments about fact-checking, occasionally using quotation marks (“fact-checking”) to imply it wasn’t legitimate.

(Read the full report.)

We found the most revealing differences in the words the writers used to describe fact-checkers and their work.

Liberals emphasize they are nonpartisan and call them “respected,” “reputable” and “independent.” Fact-checkers are “watchdogs” or “heroes.” PolitiFact is described as “Pulitzer Prize-winning.”

Conservatives use words such as “left-leaning,” “biased,” “hackiest” and “serial-lying.” They question the legitimacy of fact-checkers by calling them “self-proclaimed.”

The most wicked criticism came from Jonah Goldberg of the National Review, who called PolitiFact “the hackiest and most biased of the fact-checking outfits, which bends over like a Bangkok hooker to defend Democrats.”

Our findings indicate that fact-checkers have some work to do. They need to strengthen their outreach to conservative journalists and, particularly, to conservative audiences. The fact-checkers need to understand the reasons for the partisan divide and find ways to broaden the acceptance of their work.

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2017 fact-checking map

International fact-checking gains ground, Duke census finds

Number of projects up 19% in a year; U.S. count holds steady after tumultuous election season

By Mark Stencel – February 28, 2017 | Print this article

Falsehoods and “fake news” are keeping journalists and researchers busy in 47 countries, where 114 dedicated fact-checking teams are now calling out public figures for inaccuracies.

The number of active fact-checking projects increased more than two and half times since the Duke Reporters’ Lab began its annual census three years ago. The current count is up 19 percent from 2016, when the number of active fact-checkers was 96.

Nineteen of the fact-checkers started in 2016. That includes 10 in the United States, seven of which focused on state and local politics. The number of startups increases to 23 if we include four additional U.S. fact-checkers that launched in 2016 to cover the U.S. elections but have since shut down. Those four are now among the 55 inactive fact-checking projects that are also tracked by the Reporters’ Lab.

Also among those inactive projects is the ABC News Fact Check in Australia, which closed down in June after government budget cuts. But the ABC Fact Check is expected to return as soon as next month as part of a new partnership between the public broadcaster and RMIT University’s School of Media and Communication — a phoenix-like cycle that we’ve seen before among the world’s fact-checkers.

The Lab regularly updates the database of fact-checkers, which peaked last year at 121 before the end of the raucous U.S. election season (see the current MAP AND LIST). By the time American voters went to the polls, the number of U.S. fact-checkers had temporarily surged to 53 — up from 41 during the presidential primary campaign a year ago — with most focused on politics at the state and local level.

But with the shuttering of eight of PolitiFact’s state affiliates since the election and other updates to our list, the U.S. year-over-year count grew by just two to 43 — or about 38 percent percent of the global total. [UPDATE, March 25: PolitiFact Georgia resumed operations after brief hiatus in March 2017. PolitiFact’s reporting about Georgia politics is now syndicated to state news outlets, including The Atlanta Journal Constitution. The newspaper previously produced its own fact checks, using PolitiFact’s platform and methodology from 2010 to 2016. The numbers of fact-checkers referred to throughout this article are still based on our February count.]

The post-election dip in the U.S. was not surprising. Media fact-checkers that come to life in campaign years often go offline or close down completely after the votes are tallied — a trend PolitiFact founder Bill Adair lamented in an Election Day commentary for the New York Times.

“[P]oliticians don’t stop lying on Election Day,” wrote Adair, who now teaches journalism at Duke and oversees the university’s Reporters’ Lab.

Meanwhile, the fact-checking movement has continued to grow internationally.

Including the United States, 11 countries have more than one fact checker:
United States: 43
France: 6
United Kingdom: 6
Spain: 4
Ukraine: 4
South Korea: 3
Canada: 3
Brazil: 3
Mexico: 2
Argentina: 2
Colombia: 2

Growth was especially strong in Europe, where our count increased 44 percent — from 27 in 2016 to 39 now. While some of that increase came from adding established fact-checkers we previously hadn’t identified, seven of the European fact-checkers were among the 2016 startups.

Among the operations that opened for business in 2016 were fact-checkers in Ireland Kosovo, Lithuania, Spain and the United Kingdom, plus two in Ukraine (some of these launched early enough to in the year to be counted in last February’s report). New fact-checkers in Columbia and Kenya also launched in 2016. And with upcoming elections in France, Germany and elsewhere, we expect global growth in fact-checking will continue in 2017.

FACT CHECKERS BY CONTINENT
Africa: 5
Asia: 9
Australia: 1
Europe: 39
North America: 50
South America: 10

In the United States, fact-checkers are often part of an established news organization. But elsewhere in the world, they are less likely to have a media affiliation.

While more than 80 percent of the U.S. fact-checkers (36 of 43) are part of a media company, fewer than half in the rest of the world (33 of 71) have those kinds of direct ties. The others are mainly affiliated with universities and other non-governmental organizations that focus on issues such as civic engagement, government transparency and public accountability. Still, those independent fact-checkers frequently establish business or distribution relationships with news organizations to help pay for their work and expand their audiences.

The Reporters’ Lab is a project of the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media & Democracy at Duke University’s Sanford School for Public Policy. The Lab’s staff and student researchers identify and evaluate fact-checkers that specifically focus on the accuracy of statements by public figures and institutions in ways that are fair, nonpartisan and transparent. The Lab also gets guidance from the Poynter Institute’s International Fact-Checking Network, which established a Code of Principles in 2016.

Student researcher Hank Tucker contributed to this report, as did Reporters’ Lab director Bill Adair, Knight Professor for the Practice of Journalism and Public Policy at Duke University and founder of PolitiFact. Please send updates and additions to Reporters’ Lab co-director Mark Stencel (mark.stencel@duke.edu).

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[VIDEO] Reporters’ Lab students test Share the Facts skill on Amazon Echo

Student researchers asked "Alexa" about numerous fact-checks, in order to help improve her accuracy and comprehension

By Rebecca Iannucci – February 27, 2017 | Print this article

If you walked into the Reporters’ Lab in the last few weeks, you heard a lot of questions for Alexa.

“Alexa, ask the fact-checkers: Is it true that there was widespread voter fraud in the 2016 election?… Is it true that Donald Trump said climate change was a hoax?… Do schools really have guns to protect students from bears?”

Student researchers in the lab have been peppering our Amazon Echo with questions – some serious and some absurd –  as part of a user testing project for our Share the Facts skill for the Echo.

Share the Facts is the first fact-checking app for the Echo. When you enable it on your Echo, Alexa responds to queries with summaries from the Washington Post, PolitiFact, FactCheck.org and GossipCop, a Hollywood fact-checker, among others. We’ve been conducting the tests to improve the likelihood the Echo will match a query with a published fact-check. Our students tested more than 100 new queries on Alexa so we can better understand the reasons behind her hits and misses.

Check out the video below for a sample of the students’ tests:

Our tests found hits and misses. For example, a question about the fictional Bowling Green Massacre was answered with a fact-check about Kellyanne Conway’s false statements on the subject.

But when asked if Donald Trump’s inauguration was really the most watched ever, Alexa replied, “GossipCop rated it Zero when HollywoodLife said Kanye West is performing at Donald Trump’s inauguration.” (Uh, okay…)

Overall, though, the user testing served an important purpose: to better understand and improve how Share the Facts is used, in order to provide more immediate and accurate fact-checks to a curious audience.

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PolitiFact Truth-O-Meter

Want to test FactPopUp? Here’s how to install and use the fact-checking tool

During Tuesday's speech, Google Chrome users will have another opportunity to experiment with our real-time fact-checking tool

By Gautam Hathi – February 23, 2017 | Print this article

UPDATE. 10 a.m. Feb. 28: We’ve discovered that some users get a black window when they should be seeing a photo of Trump on the livestream page. If that happens to you, close all your Chrome windows and relaunch Chrome. Email us at factpopup@gmail.com if you have problems and we’ll troubleshoot.

On Tuesday, Feb. 28, the Duke Reporters’ Lab will conduct another test of FactPopUp, our real-time fact-checking tool, during President Trump’s address to a joint session of Congress. The free Chrome extension will provide users with a livestream of the event, along with occasional pop-up notifications of fact-checks from PolitiFact, which will be checking Trump’s statements live.

Previous tests of FactPopUp have been encouraging, with more than 500 people successfully using the tool to receive fact-checks during the third presidential debate and President Trump’s inauguration.

If you would like to be a part of this test, here are a few simple steps to follow.

1. Go here and click the “Add to Chrome” button.

FactPopUp

2. Click the “Add extension” button on the prompt that comes up.

FactPopUp

3. Click the “Open live stream” button in the page that opens after the extension installs. This should open a web page with a full-screen livestream of the event.

FactPopUp

4. If you have to close the stream window before the event, click on the FactPopUp icon to the right of your Chrome address bar and then click “Open live stream”:

FactPopUp

5. If the FactPopUp icon doesn’t show up next to the address bar, find it in the Chrome menu.

FactPopUp

If you take part, we’d love to hear your feedback. Send your comments and/or questions to factpopup@gmail.com.

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PolitiFact Pants on Fire

Improved version of FactPopUp, our real-time fact-checking tool, now available

The Chrome extension, which fact-checks political events as they happen, is now more reliable and easier to use

By Gautam Hathi – January 26, 2017 | Print this article

We’ve made some improvements to FactPopUp, our real-time fact-checking tool.

FactPopUp allows fact-checking organizations to provide live fact-checks via Twitter to users watching a live stream of a political event on their computers.

The new version is more reliable and easier to use. A Twitter account is no longer required to use the extension, and FactPopUp can be easily configured to receive fact-check tweets from any Twitter account.

Powering the new version of FactPopUp is a significantly revised architecture. Users still download a simple Chrome extension from the Chrome webstore. However, fact-checking organizations will now run a simple server which uses Azure Notification Hubs to check for new tweets and send them to the extension clients.

The new version of FactPopUp was successfully tested by PolitiFact in order to provide live fact-checking for the presidential inauguration. More than 500 people have now participated in tests of FactPopUp, both during the inauguration and the 2016 election debates.

The code for the new version of FactPopUp is now available on GitHub, allowing anyone to set up and experiment with their own version of the system. In addition, FactPopUp is now configured so that the Reporters’ Lab can explore working with a range of fact-checking organizations to leverage FactPopUp for use during major political events around the world.

The Reporters’ Lab will continue to test and iterate FactPopUp, with the goal of eventually creating a universal live fact-checking solution that works on all major platforms and for all political events.

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Fact-checking map

Fact-checkers’ reach keeps growing around the globe

We’ve updated our map to make it easier to navigate 10 dozen active sites and projects the Reporters’ Lab is monitoring around the world.

By Mark Stencel – November 22, 2016 | Print this article

The 2016 U.S. election has involved a slew of misstatements from both presidential candidates, with no shortage of Pinocchios, “whoppers,” flip-flops and other “lowlights.” And that will certainly continue long after the ballots are officially counted.

More than 50 fact-checkers across the United States helped voters sort facts from fibs in this campaign year. With 2017 looking like another big year for truthiness and misstatements, the Duke Reporters’ Lab is rolling out some improvements on the global map we use to track this important journalism.

Based on our current count, fact-checkers are already on the job in at least 10 countries where voters will be casting ballots in the coming year, including Argentina, Chile, Czech Republic, France, India, Kenya, Netherlands, Senegal, Serbia and South Korea.

Overall, we currently count 119 active fact-checkers in 44 countries. And there are multiple fact-checkers working in 12 countries.

Because fact-checking is concentrated in many cities, making the checkmarks on our map overlap, we’ve added a clustering feature that will help users find and navigate the places where we have listed multiple teams.

The map now distinguishes the active fact-checkers (shown with red pins) from the more than 40 others that have closed for one reason or another (they’re indicated by gray pins). The map also has an up-to-date tally of both the active and inactive projects. You can click on that box to look at one category or the other.

Country-by-country lists, including a tally of active projects, are available with the “Browse in List” link (find it to the right of the map).

We regularly add new fact-checkers and review the status of older ones, so our tally sometimes goes up and down. We know from past years that some U.S. fact-checkers will close for the “off-season” and the same is true in other countries.

We’re always on the lookout for fact-checkers, including those that look at issues other than politics. One example is New York-based Gossip Cop — a recent addition to our database that’s been debunking celebrity rumors since 2009.

Other recent additions include US. fact-checkers at the Cincinnati Enquirer in Ohio and the University of Wisconsin in Madison. We also added or reactivated four others that came out of hibernation for the election.

International additions include established projects in Denmark, France and Japan, and newer initiatives in Kenya and Lithuania.

If you see a fact-checking venture we’re missing, please let us know: mark.stencel@duke.edu

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Political Mail

The 2016 election, as seen through one overstuffed mailbox

The political fliers mailed to a Durham home tell an interesting tale of the 2016 campaign

By Rebecca Iannucci – November 8, 2016 | Print this article

Avoiding campaign ads during the 2016 election has been futile. Even if you turn off your TV, political ads pile up in a place you can’t ignore: your mailbox.

But there are some surprising findings in all that political mail. The fliers are more substantive than we expected and at least some of them have more positive claims about candidates than attacks on opponents.

Along with student researcher Hank Tucker, I analyzed 40 pieces of political mail that were sent to Bill Adair, director of the Reporters’ Lab and a Durham resident, beginning in late August. Of these mailers, 11 related to the presidential campaign; 20 to the U.S. Senate seat held by Richard Burr; and five to the gubernatorial race. One involved the North Carolina State Treasurer race, and three applied to multiple races.

Election 2016 political ads
Bill Adair, director of the Reporters’ Lab, received 40 pieces of political mail at his Durham home beginning in late August. Click to zoom.

We started with a hypothesis: Despite the elaborate graphics and eye-catching text, these pieces of mail wouldn’t actually say much about the candidates, their platforms or their political experience.

That wasn’t the case. Although several fliers did grab readers’ attention with ominous sentences — a Senate race mailing said, “‘My mom taught me to respect myself, to work twice as hard and to stand up to men like Richard Burr’” — a majority of the mail did integrate candidates’ policies, positions and voting histories. Only eight did not.

That same attack on Burr goes on to cite his votes against equal pay, against extending the Violence Against Women Act and against funding to reduce North Carolina’s rape kit backlog.

Another piece of mail accuses Deborah Ross of opposing the creation of North Carolina’s sex offender registry. The mailing reads, “As a radical political activist working for North Carolina’s ACLU, Deborah Ross opposed the bipartisan plan… Her concern? It could make it hard for dangerous predators ‘to reintegrate into society… and could lead to vigilantism.’”

Not every ad was negative. Of the 40 mailers we examined, 16 portrayed candidates in a positive light, while also touting their views on particular issues. For example, a postcard from the For Our Future PAC says that Hillary Clinton will “fight for climate change policy and has a plan to make equal pay for equal work a reality, invest in pre-K and make college affordable for all.” Another pro-Clinton mailing, paid for by the Democratic Party of North Carolina, shares details of her plans for the economy, international relations and paid family leave.

It’s worth noting that some pieces of mail weren’t specific in their description of a candidate’s policy plans. A door hanger from Donald Trump’s campaign managed to lay out his plans for the country without ever explaining how he’ll accomplish his goals. Using phrases like “America first,” “ending political corruption” and “safer, stronger America,” it fails to detail how Trump would make the country more secure or prevent politicians from lining their own pockets.

Also, some big and important issues were missing from the mailings, including Social Security, the federal budget and Medicare. Only one of the ads we looked at — which came from the nonpartisan Women’s Voices Women Vote Action Fund — mentioned Medicare, citing Burr’s support and Ross’ opposition of privatizing the system. Social Security wasn’t mentioned on any of the 40 mailings, nor was the federal budget — although one pro-Clinton ad claimed that “Trump’s tax plan would add trillions to the national debt.”

Many of the fliers were reruns that cycled through the same talking points (Deborah Ross raised taxes by $3 billion! Richard Burr voted to defund Planned Parenthood!).

Though many Americans are likely throwing these mailings directly in the trash, they offer something that TV and radio advertisements cannot: a slightly more substantive look at a candidate’s experience and values. Whereas televised campaign ads only have 30 seconds to get their points across — and viewers are often distracted by any number of variables — a tangible piece of mail allows voters to sit down and absorb the information.

Still, voters should be wary. We didn’t fact-check all the claims, but students in Bill’s newswriting and reporting class checked a sampling of the claims and rated them using PolitiFact’s Truth-O-Meter. The average rating: Half True.

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Hillary Clinton Mirrors Ad

Bullies, vanishing parents and a candidate flexing for the camera

The Duke Ad Watch team chooses the best and worst commercials of the 2016 campaign

By Rebecca Iannucci – November 3, 2016 | Print this article

For the last three months, student researchers in the Reporters’ Lab have watched hundreds of campaign commercials as part of our Duke Ad Watch project.

The goal was to save time for fact-checkers. The students watched ads for the presidential, senatorial, congressional and gubernatorial races and identified claims journalists at PolitiFact, FactCheck.org and other organizations could check.

Students also wrote blog posts throughout the semester, analyzing different trends that cropped up again and again in campaign ads.

With Election Day fast approaching, Bill Adair, the director of the Reporters’ Lab, sat down with the Duke Ad Watch team to discuss what it’s been like to watch hundreds of campaign ads.

He spoke with student researchers Hank Tucker, Amanda Lewellyn, Julia Donheiser, Asa Royal and Sam Turken, along with project manager Rebecca Iannucci. Here is an edited transcript.

Bill: When you tell people, “My job is to watch campaign ads all day,” and they say, “Wow, what’s that like?” — what’s your response?

Asa: It’s fun! Some of the ads are well-made, some are corny and some are horribly misleading, but almost all of them are worth watching. Eventually, you can predict what you’ll see in an ad just by seeing who’s made it and who’s mentioned in it.

Rebecca: For me, it’s two things. On one hand, it’s actually helped me to be more informed, because I’ve found myself researching whether or not the claims in these ads are true or false. I feel like I’ll be walking into that voting booth on Nov. 8 with a pretty clear picture of who these candidates really are. But it also makes me sad to watch so many attack ads. I know there are so many people being influenced by these ads, for better or for worse, and they’re blindly believing false claims. And just watching these politicians attack each other for months, instead of focusing on why they’re good for the job or what difference they would make in office — it can be really disheartening.

Julia: It makes you a little crazy and very frustrated. I say crazy because campaign ads are the epitome of low production value. But the frustration comes from the claims that campaigns and PACs continuously make, and the way that candidates and their opponents are characterized in the process. The people making these ads are only concerned about whether their candidate — and quite frankly, their party — wins. It leads to a “gotcha” style of attack ads.

Bill: So, you’re seeing the same candidates using the same ads. But are you seeing the same candidates using the same lines?

Amanda: A lot of candidates use the same B-roll. You’ll see a kind of mix-and-match between advertising. They’ll use [Republican Chuck] Grassley [of Iowa] shaking hands with people outside of a small business in different ads. And Americans for Prosperity and J Street put together multiple ads [in different states] that were pretty much the same, just with a different candidate in the hole.

Rebecca: Yeah. They were identical. I haven’t seen a lot of candidates across different states saying the exact same lines, as if they were reading from a script that was just given to a bunch of different states.

Bill: Interesting.

Rebecca: I’ve just seen the same type of factual claims get said. But from state to state, I don’t see identical scripts being used.

Sam: Also, they all respond to each other now. Or at least, a lot of them do. There was one [series of ads] where you had this bicycle delivery guy. I forget who that was for, but then the opponent introduced another bicycle delivery guy in their ads saying, “That first guy’s wrong.”

Amanda: Katie McGinty.

Rebecca: Shady Katie McGinty! [Laughs]

Hank: And Ted Strickland’s response to [Rob] Portman [of Ohio]: “He criticized me for draining the Rainy Day Fund, but it was raining pretty hard!”

Rebecca: He admitted that!

Asa: I think that ads have gotten repetitive, but that’s probably what candidates want. If a message gets played once, people will forget it. If it’s played twice, attentive people will remember it. If it’s played 40 times, nobody is going to forget it.

Bill: Does seeing all these ads make you more cynical about politics?

Hank: [immediately] Yeah.

Bill: Why?

Hank: You’ve heard “race to the bottom” a lot in the presidential campaign, but I think that’s what all the campaigns this year are getting to be. I don’t think there’s any ad that is all positive about their candidate. They can be half-negative, and then they pivot to the positive. Or a lot of them are just all negative. But there’s always an attack. It’s not like they’re running on their positions and their values. They’re saying, “This person screwed everything up, so you should vote for me.”

Julia: It’s hard not to think that politicians treat campaigns and policy like a game when you’re constantly seeing them attack their opponents with falsehoods. The political climate is so bad right now that most of these political ads seem like they could be from a comedy show. And the voters that these ads are meant to target aren’t always going to go to PolitiFact or Factcheck.org. The campaigns know that, and they take advantage of it.

Rebecca: I have found I’m also very cynical about what on Earth gets done in Washington, after seeing all these different races. If you focus on [Democratic Senate candidate] Catherine Cortez Masto, she tried to tackle sex trafficking in Nevada. But then you look at the Senate race in another state, where a different candidate talks about sex trafficking, and they couldn’t get anything done, even if Catherine Cortez Masto made a little bit of progress. You look at how many people are running for so many different offices, and you think, “What’s the point of any of this?” They go into Washington and they’re up against such partisanship, they’re just pushing their own agenda — what on Earth is actually getting accomplished there? Despite how important my one vote is said to be, that’s not always how I feel. I feel like no matter what we do, nothing is going to get achieved, because of watching all these ads and seeing how everyone is so conflicted in what they want.

Bill: What’s the production quality of these ads? Are they good? [to Rebecca] Now, you’re the former TV writer. Do you feel like they’re well-produced?

Rebecca: [Laughs] No. I don’t feel that way.

Sam: Some of the graphics are kind of cool.

Rebecca: Some of the graphics are interesting. Those are very creatively done sometimes. The ones that make me cringe are the ones where the candidates themselves show up, and they do some cheesy little skit with their constituents, or with a friend, or their husband or wife. There was one recently with [Sen.] Ron Johnson in Wisconsin, and he used his grown daughters and his wife. The women say to each other, “We didn’t want him to run for another term, but now we’re glad he’s doing it. You need help in there, honey?” And Ron Johnson is changing his grandson’s diaper in another room, and the grandson pees in his face. Then at the end, he comes in with the baby, and he dunks the diaper in the trash can, and they’re like, “Nice shot, Dad!” It’s so painful to watch. Those are the moments when production value is bad; it’s so cheesy. Why on Earth would you try to be relatable in this way when it makes you look very awkward?

Sam: The one with Kelly Ayotte playing baseball.

Amanda: Oh my God.

Sam: She’s like, “Oh, I smacked bills out of the park just like balls.”

Hank: Total pandering.

Amanda: With her Sox cap on.

Julia: The only ads I’ve seen with good production value either come straight from the campaign or are really, really weird.

Asa: As far as bad production value, I’d focus on a big bulk of ads that I just call “exceedingly mediocre.” Joe the Plumber/Doctor/Construction Worker appears on the screen, talks down on one candidate’s record, talks up another candidate’s record and then concludes the ad with a tagline. The only thing that can make an ad like that worse is if Joe never appears and you’re just forced to listen to a monotone narrator for the whole ad.

Amanda: Then there’s an ad for [Iowa Senate candidate] Patty Judge where you can tell it’s important, because she’s got the guy who voices Prairie Home Companion [Garrison Keillor] in there, and they’re challenging [Grassley] to a debate. But it’s such terrible quality. It’s tilted. It’s just an iPhone video. And you compare that to Trump or Clinton, who are never going to release something along those lines.

Bill: How are the presidential ads different? It used to be that campaigns would put out dozens and dozens of individual ads, and I don’t feel like we’ve seen that many different ads from the Trump and Clinton campaigns, have we?

Hank: There aren’t that many Hillary ads, but she knows which ones are working. We’ve seen [Trump] attacking the veterans, and one of Hillary’s ads shows veterans watching what Trump says about them. It’s also easier that they’re running against a very unusual candidate who might not be as sophisticated as a lot of presidential candidates. You can just keep doing the same things. He’s said a lot of stuff. It’s working.

Bill: What’s the best Trump ad?

Amanda: They just throw out words: “Power.” “America, great again.” That’s it.

Sam: There’s no policy. No policy.

Rebecca: The only ones that did have policy were the series of ads called “Two Americas.” One was about immigration, one was economy, one was veterans. And they all say, “In Hillary Clinton’s America, it’s more of the same… but worse.” [Bill laughs] “But in Donald Trump’s America…,” and it gets happy. But there’s no specific numbers. It doesn’t really say how he will go about doing anything. They’ll just say, “Everyone gets more affordable child care. Everyone gets more this or that.” And that’s it.

Bill: What’s the best ad?

Amanda: I got teary-eyed at one the other day. I don’t even remember what it was — [to Rebecca] — but I remember I told you about it.

Rebecca: The bully one. From Clinton.

Amanda: The bully one! She mixes in clips of Trump speaking and bullying people with bullies from movies. The guy from Back to the Future

Rebecca: A Christmas Story, Regina George from Mean Girls

Amanda: And then it flips to a young girl asking Clinton what she’s going to do about bullies in America. And then Clinton has a heartwarming response. It’s really cute.

Rebecca: I would say the series of ads that Clinton put out — like you were saying, Hank — with the kids watching the TVs, veterans watching the TVs. There was one specific ad where they actually interviewed one of those veterans and did a full minute-long ad with just him. He talked about how the horrors of war still stick with him, and he started crying and saying, “How dare Donald Trump say that he can relate to this.” I found all of those really emotionally stirring. It’s one thing to see the clips of Trump over and over, being such a jerk and saying all these things, but to see those people react and be so sad and scared — that’s what really gets me. And the “Mirrors” ad that Clinton put out, too. That was probably the most effective.

Sam: Yeah, the Hillary ads that just have Trump clips. It’s so easy to do, so easy to put together, and the message is just so clear. You really don’t need anything more complicated than that. It just reinforced everything, all the negative things he’s said.

Bill: What’s the worst ad? I’d be particularly interested at the state level — worst for production value, most annoying. What’s the worst one?

Rebecca: Oh my gosh. I have to think about this. I’ve seen so many bad ones.

Sam: That comic one with Hillary.

Bill: What was that one?

Sam: It was this weird comic thing. She was a cartoon. Everybody was a cartoon. Talking about Russia.

Rebecca: She went to go visit Putin and handed over uranium, and the whole thing was voiced by impersonators of Putin and Clinton. It was so weird! It was so weird.

Asa: I wish this weren’t so easy. Donald Trump’s attempt to appeal to the BJP Hindu vote in America. If the ad was supposed to make me cringe and laugh, I guess it worked. If it was supposed to appeal to my half-Indian identity and make me think better of Trump, I don’t know what to say.

Hank: There was one that was just goofy. [Christine Jones] was running for Congress, a Republican businesswoman. There was a white background where she was standing, and there was a crowd of old white guys around a microphone, and she says things like, “I’ve never taken funding from special interests. Can they say that?” and they all start chanting, “More, more, more!” Just weird.

Rebecca: That’s the vibe I got from so many of these cringey, I’m-embarrassed-for-you kind of ads. You laugh at them, and then you remember: These are people running for office. They are running to be in the Senate. They’re running to be in Congress. And — [laughs] — it’s just so stupid!

Amanda: It makes you take the race less seriously, and the position itself.

Hank: There’s another ad that weirded me out. It implied that parents of young children would be dying. [Everyone groans and laughs, recognizing the ad] It showed this picture of a mom in her bed with her young daughter, and then the mom vanishes. Fades into nothing. And then there’s a dad with his daughter, who’s wearing a wedding dress. And they’re standing together, but then the dad vanishes and it’s just the daughter alone. And then there’s a dad with his kid on a tricycle… but then the kid vanishes.

Rebecca: You think the dad’s gonna vanish, but then the kid has died!

Hank: And then it says something like, “Pollution creates so many premature deaths every year. Senator Ron Johnson voted against the clean energy something-or-other. Don’t vote for him.”

Bill: So if he gets re-elected, people are going to die.

Rebecca: Yep. That little 5-year-old.

Hank: A lot of times, you can tell who’s losing.

Sam: Yeah, who’s desperate.

Bill: How so?

Hank: They seem more desperate. It seems like they feel more of a need to defend themselves against attacks from the other candidate. Like in Ohio, Ted Strickland is losing to Rob Portman, and you can tell that [Strickland’s team] is kind of on their heels, having to defend themselves and make these extreme, radical claims against whoever. Same with [Russ] Feingold — he’s beating Ron Johnson in Wisconsin. And Feingold, a lot of his ads are more traditional, saying, “I did these things in the Senate.” The losers don’t seem as on-message. They’re just all over the place, ads trying to attack everything. The desperation — it’s not obvious in all the cases, but you can tell.

Sam: Yeah, like Michael Bennet in Colorado. He’s had an easy lead in Colorado.

Rebecca: Who’s he running against? [beat] Oh, Darryl Glenn.

Amanda: Darryl Glenn!

Rebecca: That’s the worst ad we’ve ever seen!

Sam: Is that the one with him working out?

Rebecca: Yes! He’s doing, like, P90X for three minutes!

Sam: Michael Bennet hasn’t attacked once. I’ve seen 10 ads for Michael Bennet, and not one of them has an attack in it.

Rebecca: Yeah, he has run a very positive race.

Amanda: Until Darryl Glenn released that ad, I don’t think we even knew who [Bennet’s] competition was.

Rebecca: We didn’t, yeah! We were like, “Is he running uncontested?” Because nothing bad was coming out about him, and he’s not saying anything bad about other people.

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Campaign Ad Voiceovers

Duke Ad Watch: Gender stereotypes play a role in commercial narrations

Campaign ads feature more male than female voiceovers and use gender to elicit different reactions

By Sam Turken – November 3, 2016 | Print this article

With Hillary Clinton the Democratic nominee for president, and women a critical voting block in this election cycle, you might have expected to see more female-narrated political advertisements on TV. But no: Men are still controlling the airwaves.

A Reporters’ Lab analysis of 256 presidential, senatorial and gubernatorial campaign ads in the last two months found that political ads feature male narrators more frequently than female narrators.

And the use of male and female voiceovers often conforms to gender stereotypes. Campaigns seem to employ male voiceovers as a default option in both positive and negative ads about candidates’ policies and plans. Female narrations, however, are relegated to attack ads that rarely discuss strategy — which aligns with patriarchal beliefs that women are less knowledgeable about policy.

Our analysis reviewed ads that included voiceovers or testimonials from constituents. We didn’t count the ads that featured a candidate as a narrator or involved both male and female voice-overs.

Since September, 138 ads have used male voiceovers to either promote a politician or attack someone else. The male narrators discuss anything from a candidate’s policy achievements and goals to corruption scandals involving another politician. The voiceovers are usually low and strong, possibly to convey a politician’s might or to create an ominous tone in attack ads.

For example, take a look at the National Republican Senatorial Committee’s “Money Tree” ad. Aside from its creepy use of fairy tale elements to criticize Senate candidate Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), the ad employs a voiceover that is unusually deep and seems artificial.

The female voiceovers, by contrast, have appeared in 118 ads and mostly question other candidates’ character. While 29 male voiceovers were positive, just 12 female narrations promoted a specific politician.

The ads often feature hopeless, worried women talking about their personal experiences with a candidate and why voters should not support him or her. In an ad called “Fix This,” a teacher in North Carolina criticizes Gov. Pat McCrory for trying to cut education funding. Toward the end of the ad, the teacher seems desperate as she calls on someone “to fix this.”

Women’s narrations also rarely appear in ads about policies and other traditionally “masculine” topics like national security and foreign affairs. Rather, female voiceovers usually discuss “feminine” issues, such as abortion, child care and education. Campaigns likely believe that ads about such topics will be more credible and striking with female voiceovers.

The disparities in the use of male and female voiceovers are nothing new.

A study published in Political Communication by Patricia Strach, an associate professor of political science and public administration and policy at the University of Albany, examined 7,000 campaign ads during the 2010-2012 congressional elections. Strach and her team of researchers found that 63 percent of the voiceovers were male, 28 percent were female and nine percent used both genders.

Strach reviewed different variables that could have factored into campaigns’ decisions to use male narrations, and surveyed participants about which types of voiceovers were most influential. Although she concluded that female voiceovers are more credible in ads about feminine issues, Strach found no evidence that male voiceovers are overall more effective than female narrations.

“It seems it’s a default or a bias that campaign managers have or the availability of these voices and not something that’s strategic,” Strach told the Reporters’ Lab.

The study also determined that female voiceovers appear most often in negative ads. Strach said that could be because female voiceovers seem to soften the blow of attacks and minimize backlash.

“You can say really mean things, but it doesn’t come across as harsh when women are saying it,” Strach said.

Why campaigns use voiceovers in the way they do isn’t something we’re going to decipher with the election finally coming to an end. But it’s clear that even an election cycle as crazy as this one has not changed how campaigns use gender to promote and attack politicians.

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