Political advertising must past muster
With the election season comes a lot of questions about candidates, where they stand and what they claim. That's politics and newspapers are particularly effective in passing on important messages to the public about the candidates who run for office.
We realize the Valley Journal is an important and popular medium for candidates to get out their message. Community newspapers are particularly strong in delivering local news and messages across a wide demographic of the valley population.
According to annual National Newspaper Association readership research conducted in 2009, 60 percent of adults rely on community newspapers as their primary source for local news, four times greater than the next nearest medium and ten times greater than the Internet. I'd argue our percent is probably higher, particularly because of the absence of consistent local television coverage.
Regardless, news and advertising in the community newspaper is clearly an effective way to spread the word about political races. Local politicians and groups advertise their agendas and positions to the actual voters in a publication that is not only widely read, but widely accepted.
Unfortunately, sometimes candidates or organizations run negative ads about other candidates in an attempt to exhort the positive aspects of their own candidate or to simply voice opposition against that one candidate. It happens more often in statewide or national elections, but negative advertising creeps into local elections as well.
I believe it's unfortunate because it's a sad reflection on a candidate or group who has to tear down a candidate to make themselves or others look more appealing to voters. But in all fairness, we believe we are obligated to publish those advertisements as long as they are not libelous, do not make unverified claims, are truthful, are not simply character assassinations or vindictive, and are within good taste.
Those are judgment calls we make and discuss with potential advertisers, but even more importantly we believe they are judgment calls our readers expect, perhaps even demand that we make. Our credibility is on the line with every one of those ads, so we take them very seriously indeed.
Political advertisements can't be anonymous either. Montana state law requires accountability and specific identification of who is responsible for political advertisements. You can find the law delineated in Montana Code Annotated Title 13, Chapters 35 and 37. You can also review an overview of what disclaimers are required by visiting http://politicalpractices.mt.gov/content/pdf/5cfp/Disclaimer_brochure.pdf
There's a big difference between a negative advertisement and one that makes libelous claims too. You can say Bob is not an effective public servant and list why another would be better in the job, but you can't suggest that Bob is a criminal or attack his reputation without some exact, credible reference.
It's not up to any publication or media to do that investigation either. It has to be clear within the message that is published that the facts are readily available and verifiable. To suggest shenanigans isn't enough to clear that hurdle; that's akin to suggesting rumors might be true or that you found some information on the Internet that may or may not meet the critical criteria of publication in credible or discriminating media.
If you're going to want to publish a claim, you and that publishing medium has to be prepared to defend it in court. If for no other reason, that's why we're so critical of such ads.
Candidates and organizations clearly want to promulgate their message through the Valley Journal — we're the best-read newspaper in the valley for good reason. But we ask everyone who wants to send out their message to uphold a standard of credibility, fairness and accountability that garners the respect of our readers.
You're welcome to say Bob or Jane isn't as good a candidate as Tom or Sally, and you can do so with passion and countless examples. But you can't libel someone or use rumors as the basis for your argument, at least not in our newspaper.