“Truth boxes”

Media monitoring of TV campaign ads

Some news media are adding television campaign ads to their watchdog responsibilities.

By Robin Hughes, editor

Interviews and research for this article were done by staff writer Julie Kredens.

Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.

Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 2, no. 8 (November/December 1990), p. 5.

This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.


Some newspapers call them “truth boxes,” others call them “ad watches.” The text of a candidate’s television commercial is given, accompanied by a reporter’s analysis of the truth of the campaign statements made in the ad.

The truth boxes represent a new and growing effort this election to monitor political advertising on TV. They also represent acknowledgment by the print media of the power of the tube: Elections today are determined by 30-second TV spots, not by what the candidate says in policy statements or at the Kiwanis Club.

Los Angeles Times media writer Thomas Rosenstiel said that newspapers had been on a “nostalgia trip” in the way they covered campaigns. “The irony of political coverage by newspapers in this country is that the reporters frequently never saw what the voters saw, they never saw the nightly news because they were traveling with candidates. So, they were covering, essentially, the wrong campaign.”

The L.A. Times is often credited with starting the truth box movement. Julie Wilson, who was the Times‘s political editor and is now editor of its Ventura County edition, said when the Times first started analyzing ads, candidates and their managers were shocked and angry. She said now they accept the truth boxes as routine. “When campaigns launch an ad, they either invite us to a showing or they send us a tape . . . with documentation,” said Wilson. “They send us their own truth boxes.”

The Sacramento Bee also ran truth boxes. Bill Endicott, The Bee‘s capitol bureau chief, said he believes the boxes made campaigns realize that “they can’t put out totally unsupported charges.”

Some television newsrooms have also gotten into the act of monitoring ads on their own stations. WVUE in Austin, TX, put spots for gubernatorial candidates to the truth test. The first test on an ad for Clayton Williams resulted in the candidate pulling the ad and changing it.

Not everyone agrees that the truth boxes really have had any impact. Marc Chimes of Nordlinger Associates, a Washington-based political consulting firm, said “I don’t think anything is being revealed, resolved, or cleared up.” Chimes said the truth boxes have not had any effect on races in which he has been involved.

Chimes also questions whether it’s the media’s role to analyze ads, since usually deception is not involved, but “shadings of truth,” which is a subjective matter.

The subjective nature of truth boxes worries many journalists. Wilson of the L.A. Times said “we wanted to make sure we weren’t stepping over that line between news analysis and editorial statements.” Other papers resolved the dilemma by giving the ad reporter the editorial license of a movie critic or columnist.

Critics point out that political spots are paid advertisements. Why should they be subject to closer scrutiny than other ads? Endicott of The Bee says the answer is simple: “These people are running for public office and asking people to vote for them. I think it’s comparing apples and oranges to compare elected officials to Sears Roebuck.”

Ted Glasser, a journalism ethics professor at Stanford University, said analyzing ads is consistent with the media’s watchdog role. “The press is supposed to be involved in reporting and commenting on public affairs. Political advertising is the quintessential form of public affairs these days, fortunately or unfortunately.”

Glasser is concerned the ad analysis being done doesn’t go far enough. Journalists need to look beyond the “factual accuracy of the ads” to the message the visual imagery conveys. Some newspapers are trying to do this.

Ironically, truth boxes which are, in part, a reaction to the negative campaigning in 1988, are being used for negative campaign ads by opponents.

The L.A. Times‘s Rosenstiel believes it’s not the job of journalists to stop attack ads. “Mudslinging is an old and cherished tradition in this country.

All we can hope to do is referee the sport so that it’s handled properly.”