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UM professor breaks down ins and outs of political advertising

Lee Banville
Posted at 2:09 PM, Oct 12, 2020
and last updated 2020-10-12 18:49:19-04

MISSOULA — The November 3 general election is less than a month away.

For the past few months, our Chief Political reporter Mike Dennison has been working diligently to keep you informed on the upcoming election, including fact-checking several of the ads that run during commercial breaks across all of Montana's local news stations.

But we want you to have the tools to do this yourself as well so we sat down with a professor at the University of Montana to talk about what legal obligations these ads are required to meet and how you can tell fact from fiction.

In a world where screens surround us, it can be challenging to escape political advertisements, especially in October. As you watch, you may be wondering who's behind these ads and how can we know whether what they are saying is true?

“Political advertising or any kind of issue advertising where somebody is trying to convince you to feel a certain way about a candidate or an issue, they are oftentimes are going to stretch, or they won't lie, but they will get real close to lying about what the candidate or the issue means to the voter to either try to get them fired up about voting for the other candidate or to kind of scare them about what the implications are of something happening one way or the other," said UM Journalism Law professor Lee Banville.

Although it may feel overwhelming Banville has a few recommendations for making sure you can sort through the barrage of information.

“Once you know its an advertisement, its paying attention to, in particular, the citations they are required to put at the bottom of the screen," Banville told MTN News. "They have to say where I'm coming up with this information, and you can actually go check it. Or you should be able to go check it and if you can't you should believe anything that came out of that announcer's mouth.”

Disclaimers are also required for any campaign materials. According to the State of Montana website, any communications that advocate the success or defeat of a candidate must identify the person who has paid for the campaign materials. That includes television, websites, yard signs, and bumper stickers.

A few more tips from Banville and MTN's Lauren Heiser:

  • While watching TV, keep your phone close by so you can snap a quick photo of the screen when these political ads air. Sometimes those citations and the disclaimers are only on the screen for a moment, and the font can be relatively small. Taking a photo allows you to take a closer look at what those hard to read words are saying.
  • Take time to consider where the facts and data they use in the advertisement is coming from. Ask yourself is this a reliable source, and when the information was published originally.

“There is information that is vetted and checked, and that information, while it could still have errors, is going through a process to check it. Whether it’s editing on the side of journalism or its the internal checks of a government agency, they check to make sure that it is right or as right as they can get it at the time that they publish it,” said Banville.