PolitifactNC

'Deceptive' or helpful? Liberal group's ad looks like TV news

Posted February 24, 2020 6:03 p.m. EST
Updated February 25, 2020 1:52 p.m. EST

— The video begins like a segment on your local television station.

A woman appears on screen, standing behind a desk emblazoned with the words “North Carolina Examiner.”

“Breaking news today,” she says, without identifying herself. “The U.S. House has passed a law to give Medicare the power to negotiate lower drug prices.”

She then says North Carolina Republican U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis may block the measure, and she refers viewers to NCExaminer.com.

Some media experts see a problem. The video, which has been viewed more than 267,000 times on Facebook, is a political ad scripted to look like a newscast. So, it’s possible people who watched the video were tricked into thinking the message was from a traditional TV news organization.

The only indicator that the video is an ad is a disclaimer that appears at the end of the video, “Paid for by Piedmont Rising.”

Piedmont Rising is a nonprofit created by organizations that advocate for liberal causes. The group lists Planned Parenthood, Progress NC and the Charlotte Reproductive Action Network among the members of its advisory board.

Jonathan Jones, a Durham-based attorney who specializes in media law and transparency, said he thinks the ad is “deceptive.”

The ad is “clearly designed to mimic” an actual newscast, Jones said in an email. On social media, he said, the risk of confusion is higher because videos are “disconnected from any additional context."

Chuck Tryon, a professor of media studies at Fayetteville State University, last week spoke out against misinformation on Facebook. Tryon sits on Piedmont Rising’s advisory board and claims he saw the video for the first time on Monday.

"I hadn’t seen that ad – we weren’t shown it in advance – and I’m honestly not comfortable with that kind of tactic,” he said.

On Tuesday, Tryon said he resigned from his position on Piedmont Rising's advisory board.

Piedmont Rising spokeswoman Jessica Coscia said the group’s ad and its “examiner” brand are meant to help health care issues get the attention they deserve.

“The bottom line is health care coverage is under attack, and these important issues are simply not getting the attention they deserve – and it's a matter of life and death,” Coscia wrote in an email. “Currently, the Lower Drug Costs Now Act is sitting in the U.S. Senate awaiting a vote. We believe Senators Tillis and [Richard] Burr should support this important piece of legislation.”

As for the style of the video, Coscia defended the group’s message as “news.”

"The North Carolina Examiner shares fact-based stories from credible sources, making it a one-stop shop for health care news and analysis,” she said. “We stand by all of the stories we produce and report.”

Long-term effects

Tillis spokesman Andrew Romeo said the ad gives a false impression of the incumbent’s stance on health care.

“Senator Tillis has made it clear that he supports lowering the cost of prescription drugs and co-sponsors legislation that will do so,” Romeo said.

The Piedmont Rising ad isn’t explicitly anti-Tillis. The woman in the video mentions that Tillis may vote against a bill, but she doesn't go into much detail.

Regardless of its content, news-style advocacy can generate distrust of media reports, said Kimon Drakopoulos, who researches misinformation as a professor at the USC Marshall School of Business.

“These tactics reduce people's guard to ‘fake news’ or agenda-driven campaigns,” Drakopoulos said. “Exposing people to bad accuracy news, even if not biased, can have detrimental effects.”

Other reaction

Cal Cunningham, one of several Democrats hoping up unseat Tillis in November’s election, criticized the Republican Party last week for “meddling” in the Democratic Senate primary. A political committee linked to U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is funding ads to help state Sen. Erica Smith, D-Northampton, one of Cunningham’s primary opponents.

On Monday, the North Carolina Republican Party accused Piedmont Rising of using a deceptive ad “to prop up weak Democratic candidates.”

“The only 'news' provided in this ad is the fact that liberal outside groups are willing to spend money outside the state in an effort to deceive North Carolina voters,” said Jeff Hauser, NC GOP’s spokesman.

One media expert downplayed Piedmont Rising’s news-like ad. Gad Allon, director of the management and technology program at the University of Pennsylvania, compared it to sponsored content on news websites.

Advertisements on news websites are sometimes written to look like real news headlines.

“In both cases, the reader is misled to believe the content is objective,” said Allon, who co-authored a study on news consumption with Drakopoulos.

“In one case, it’s paid by a firm, written by an otherwise credible journalist. In the other case, a fake TV station is used to deliver paid content,” Allon said. “In fact, I find the ‘paid content’ much more misleading.”

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