Here’s something to you don’t want to find in your newsroom’s inbox: “I’m very disappointed in you for airing an anti-[issue/candidate] message by your reporter. I thought the news was supposed to be objective.”
That’s just the type of complaint News Director Tim Wieland at KCNC-TV received last week, though, and one newsrooms should be watchful for this election season.
So what happened? Had one of CBS 4 Denver’s reporters really aired a message in support of one side of an issue?
No. The viewer had been duped by an advocacy organization campaign message’s selective editing.
Candidates and advocacy groups have long used a variety of tactics to make their messages sound credible and convincing.
We wrote last year about the emergence of partisan “alternative news” sites masquerading as traditional, local journalism.
According to Dr. Patrick Meirick, Director of the University of Oklahoma’s Political Communication Center, using news headlines in political ads isn’t new, either: “It's maybe in the last 20 years that ads have started showing the sources of their claims. Ads now often have footnotes with the bill numbers and dates of votes or the headlines and dates of newspaper stories.”
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press noted the issue as far back as 2001, following a specific case in which a candidate used C-SPAN footage of an opponent, including the network’s logo and intro, as a campaign ad.
In the case of KCNC-TV last week, the station had aired a segment, coincidentally, fact-checking a campaign ad about a particular ballot issue. The segment was a factual piece outlining potential impacts of a ballot initiative. It was, by any measure, an objective look at a local issue, empowering local voters to make a more informed decision for themselves.
But then, an advocacy organization included a clip of that report – but only the portion that seemed to support the organizations’ own view, not the additional context and opposing points also presented – in an ad attempting to sway voters.
Why? Likely in an attempt to add credibility to the argument. “Trust in the news media is not great these days, but local news is among the most trusted segments of the news media,” says Dr. Meirick. “Besides, it's better than trust in political ads!”
In fact, a Poynter Media Trust Survey recently showed trust in news media up modestly in the last year. “76 percent of Americans across the political spectrum have ‘a great deal’ or ‘a fair amount’ of trust in their local television news,” Poynter reported.
But that trust is founded on local news stations’ commitments to truth, accuracy and, importantly, independence, all core values of the RTDNA Code of Ethics.
Today, when we are all bombarded by “content” from all angles every day, including misinformation in the form of viral errors and disinformation meant to mislead, news organizations need to do more than ever to demonstrate journalism’s credibility.
So what can you do if your station’s news report is used in an incomplete or misleading way by an organization or candidate with an agenda?
Unfortunately, the answer may be “not much.”
Sometimes stations or networks will challenge campaigns for using their footage without permission. In the 2008 presidential election, for example, both major party candidates, McCain and Obama received cease-and-desist letters from major networks for their use of networks’ clips.
However, particularly when using a short news clip as just one portion of an ad, courts have generally come down on the side of campaigns, considering the material to be “fair use.”
Fair use is the legal principle that allows the use of copyrighted material without permission in some limited circumstances depending on:
- The purpose of the use, with educational, noncommercial and political speech more likely to be considered fair use.
- The nature of the copyrighted work, with use of factual items like news stories more likely to be considered fair use than more creative, imaginative works of fiction.
- The amount of the work used, with use of a short clip more likely to be considered fair use than a key element or entire piece.
- The effect on the original copyright holder, and whether the unlicensed use will hurt the market for the original work.
Campaigns are allowed to use our news reporting for 2 reasons. 1st, the Supreme Court determined political advertising is considered to be constitutionally protected free speech. 2nd, courts have ruled that using our content in political advertising is allowed under “fair use.”— Tim Wieland (@CBS4Tim) August 22, 2018
Knowing that a legal challenge could be an expensive and potentially losing proposition, what is the alternative for stations that find their footage being used to advance an issue?
“My only advice is to be as transparent as possible,” says Wieland, and that’s the approach KCNC-TV took, issuing a follow up report explaining the issue.
“Our credibility is already under attack,” Wieland said. “This campaign tactic is confusing at best, destructive at worst. Use it as an opportunity to inform the audience about how and why this tactic is used, to serve up the entire story rather than the small segments used in the campaign ad, and to pledge fairness in the weeks ahead leading up to the election.”
Lynn Walsh with the Trusting news project agrees. “Addressing the issue is a must,” she says. “It’s important to explain what’s happening, why this is legal … and that it doesn’t have anything to do with you agreeing, promoting or helping the candidate [or] issue. Addressing the issue allows you explain how journalism and politics work.”
Copyright and fair use are complicated issues even journalists, whose work involves these concepts daily, don’t always understand fully. Offering clear, simple and transparent explanations (here’s another example) can be a big help to a potentially confused viewer like the one who wrote into KCNC-TV.
Walsh again: “Explaining the unknown for users helps them understand what’s happening, prevent them from jumping to conclusions and ultimately build a relationship and trust.”
With primaries happening now across the country and midterm elections coming up, is your station ready?