Updated Oct. 10, 2012

What is Free the Files?

Free the Files is a new ProPublica news application tracking political ad filings from television stations in swing markets. Our goal is to increase transparency around these filings by sorting and annotating them with key data, making it easier to identify the groups buying these political ads.

What are the files and where do they come from?

Television stations are required to maintain a “political file” of political ads requests and contracts. The files in our database are from the four major television affiliates (ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX) in 33 swing markets. The files marked "contract" represent orders for ads. In some cases -- for example if an ad is preempted because of a change in programming -- not all of the ads ordered on a contract will actually air.

How do I free a file?

Look for the green “free a file” button or click here to retrieve a random document. You can also retrieve a document from our list of swing markets by clicking the market name and then launching the green “free a file” button.

These documents are complicated. What am I looking for?

We are looking for four key pieces of information:

1. Who bought the ad: This will usually be a candidate, political committee or issue group, and is usually labeled as “advertiser.”

2. The advertising agency placing the ad: Not to be confused with “advertiser,” this is the agency placing the ad request on behalf of the candidate or group purchasing the ad. This usually appears as “agency name.”

3. The contract ID: This is usually labeled “contract #” or “order #.”

4. The amount of the buy: There can be several dollar amounts listed. We are looking for the gross total amount per individual order, sometimes labeled “report total.”  

Finally, if there is something else you find particularly interesting about the document – the name of a group you’ve never heard before, the television programming requested, or any unusual notes about the order – please flag the file and note your find.

What if I find a document that isn’t an ad buy?

We are only looking for ad contracts – not invoices, order changes, agreement forms or other secondary documents. Look for the red buttons to help us sort extraneous documents. If the document is labeled “invoice” instead of “contract,” please tag the document as an invoice. If it is unclear what the document is, tag it as unreadable.

What if there are multiple contracts in a single file?

We've created a new button for classifying documents with multiple contracts -- please choose the red button labeled "there are multiple contracts in this filing" to skip that document. We will separate those files and refile them for review. 

What do I do if I can't read the document or its incomplete?

Please choose the red button labeled "this is unreadable or not an ad order" to skip that document. 

When is a file officially freed?

Multiple users must submit concurring data in order for it to show up as a freed file and be included in our swing market logs.

I logged in through Facebook. Does this mean everyone can see my Facebook profile?

If you log in through Facebook, we feature your name and avatar in our leaderboard. But we do not include links to your Facebook profile or automatically publish to your wall. However, we encourage bragging in the name of transparency and do hope you’ll help us spread the word on Facebook and Twitter.

How can I find documents not included in Free the Files database?

The Free the Files app includes annotated files from 33 swing markets, but you can search documents from all 50 markets by going here. We update this document list each day with new files published by the FCC. However, any files outside of the top 50 television markets are not available online from the FCC.

To view those documents, you will have to visit your local television station and ask for “the public file.” This file will also include a “political file” of requests for air time by candidates or political groups, as well as any ad buys made. Most stations will provide a copy of these documents for free, but some may charge a fee per page to print them. The nonprofit Free Press has compiled a helpful checklist to help you prepare your visit.  

Can I add my city to Free the Files?

Not at this time. We are encouraging volunteers with files from markets beyond the top 50 to upload those documents to the Sunlight Foundation/FreePress Political Ad Sleuth project.

Do you have any other questions? We would love your feedback. Send us a Tweet with #FreeTheFiles or leave a comment below to tell us what you think.