Journalism in the Public Interest

Free the Files Frequently Asked Questions

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.

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. 

I’d like to have something more substantive to say, but very nice!

Clarification Please: On the FAQ, you list “Who bought this ad” as “...usually labeled as ‘advertiser’”. The Help button on the form identifies “Who bought it?” as “Product”, leaving “Advertiser” un-highlighted. Nowhere are you inputting what the ad was for (candidate ad vs. issue). Sometimes advertiser and product are similar or the same; sometimes very different. Which field should I be documenting? Thanks!

Having now messed around with it for a while, last night (and I had to stop myself so that I could get to bed), I have two comments.

First, I don’t know about anybody else (though I can guess, based on the summary numbers), but the system seems to be…unnaturally interested in Ohio.  Even when I took the effort to try to change the locale, we were back to the Ohio race.  Maybe that’s a function of the files acquired, but someone might want to check to see if there’s testing code to yank out, or the plan is going to be far less useful to people outside of the one region.

Second, there was at least one instance where I submitted the form and realized I had made a mistake (another good reason to stop for the night…).  It might be worthwhile to add a way to view and either edit or report our contributions so that someone else isn’t stuck with the gruntwork of finding and fixing that entry.

Also, one question, which is semi-related.  I don’t think many, if any, of the forms I was given were approved.  The first one I saw was only superficially filled in with the identity of the buyer, but no airing information (I flagged it as “special”).  Is that relevant?

A longer-term suggestion would be to also compile when and where the ads are running.  It’s much more tedious, but it says a lot about a campaign that it’s advertising during the local news versus a sitcom or soap opera.

@Jennifer - thanks for the question. “Product” or “advertiser” are both used as labels to denote the group buying the advertisement. We included three examples in the Help box to try to guide you through the variations. // amanda

@John - thanks for your work on these! You note several other data points are certainly interesting. We are focusing on trying to get more documents completed with fewer data points for now.

The “get me a file” button on the front page will favor markets based on their swing rating, and how close we are to completing documents there. If you want to review documents in a specific region, use the drop-down menu to find a market, then get a file. When you retrieve documents from market pages, we keep you in that market. Hope that helps!

@John - and regarding mistakes, the system is designed to deal with that through multi-user verification. If at least two people don’t agree on a datapoint, we won’t include it in our database. Which is why a file can’t officially be freed by a single person. It takes teamwork. ;)

Thanks, Amanda.  I didn’t necessarily WANT to change regions.  I just found it odd to only see them from one region (even when changing explicitly) and the numbers seemed biased.  And since it’s the sort of mistake I’ve made in my own code a few times over the years…

I did catch the peer review (and it’s a very good appraoch), but still think it’d be better to catch our own where we can.  It’d make me feel better, at least, to minimize the burden on the review process instead of figuring someone else will deal with my screwups.  Not a huge deal, but I assume it’d be an easy thing to get working, since all the components look like they’re already in place.

I’ve run across several contracts which will list a number of tv spots but with a zero ($0.00) amount for each. I’m hesitant to submit information on these type of contracts as I’m not sure whether they’re incomplete, summary invoices/listings, or truly contracts with a $0.00 total. Guidance would be appreciated!

Same question as Daniel. I’ve had 3 in a row with $0 dollar total. I don’t want to mess up the stats if this is incorrect. Thanks!

Hi guys - I tried to help out but couldn’t “submit” the first doc I retrieved. I couldn’t find a tech-help area, just just posting in here.

I’m using Chrome 22.0 on Mac OS X 10.7.5 and had filled in all the sections.

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:
Free the Files

Free the Files

Outside groups are spending hundreds of millions to influence the coming elections. Help unlock outside spending by "freeing" political ad buys from television stations in swing markets.

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