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Reporting Recipe: Four Stories You Can Write Using Free the Files

The FCC is finally requiring TV stations to upload political ad files online. Here's how to use them.

We’ve been writing a lot about the newly available TV station ad files that offer never-before-available details on political spending. And ProPublica readers around the country have been helping sort through the data in our Free the Files app. We thought it would be useful to explain a few ways we and other media have used the files, and how other reporters might do the same.

Show how much dark money is flowing into your area

TV station political files can be used to give readers a granular look at ad spending in a particular market. To get a sense of how big a role groups funded by anonymous money were playing in one important race, Kim Barker and I analyzed all the files from the affiliates of the four major networks in Albuquerque, N.M., which was flooded with outside money over the summer. We found that more than half the money spent on ads on those stations in the U.S. Senate race in August came from dark money groups, underscoring the growing role such organizations are playing this year.

If you want to focus on a particular race, this can require extra reporting. That's because the TV station files for outside groups don't identify which race the group's ads focus on. Some of the bigger groups might be advertising in more than one race -- presidential and senate, for example. You can avoid this problem by just focusing on overall ad spending in a market without distinguishing between races.

It's important to realize that because of gaps in the FCC's rules, you won’t get a comprehensive picture: stations outside the big four affiliates in the top 50 markets don't have to post their political files online until 2014 (Note: The data we have only tracks 33 swing markets). The FCC’s rule also doesn’t cover cable ad spending. But the available files still offer the clearest picture yet of ad spending in a market.

How to do it:

  • Download a spreadsheet of all the all data from the market you want to analyze. You’ll find a link to the spreadsheet at the bottom of the individual market pages. (Here’s Cleveland.)
  • Analyze files marked “contract” or "order" and remember that these are just that: orders for ads, not final invoice amounts. In some cases not all of the ads in an order will run, for example because of changes in programming.
  • Be aware of revisions to orders so you can adjust your calculations accordingly. Files marked “invoice” show the ads that actually ran and how much they cost, but invoices aren’t filed until after ads run. So focusing on contracts is the best way to estimate ongoing spending. Some stations have their own systems with different types of documents, so if you’re confused, call the station.

Shining light on secretive outside groups

Most of the outside spending in federal elections this cycle is by groups run by well-known operatives with close ties to the presidential campaigns or political parties –such as Karl Rove's American Crossroads and the pro-Obama Priorities USA Action. But there are also a crop of smaller groups, some of which were recently created and about which little is known. Information in the TV stations' political files can help report on such groups.

By law, TV stations must keep on file information identifying the executives or boards of directors of any entity that pays for broadcasts that are a “political matter or matter involving the discussion of a controversial issue of public importance.”

Some of these sponsorship identification files are not yet online — though all should be by early next year.

How to do it:

  • If you're looking into a specific group, sometimes the files are online, and if they're not, try calling the station or paying a visit in person. The nonprofit Free Press has compiled a helpful checklist for requesting political files from stations.
  • Look for phone numbers, addresses, and the name of an organizer. I used one of these sponsorship ID forms to report on a dark money group in Ohio, the Government Integrity Fund, which has run more than $1 million in ads in the state’s U.S. Senate race.    

Finding unreported spending and highlighting gaps in campaign finance laws

Analyzing TV ad files can uncover large sums of political spending that may not be disclosed elsewhere. On both the federal and state levels, there are gaps in laws requiring reporting of political spending. Under federal rules, for example, certain groups do not report spending on issue ads if they do not run near an election or convention. Such spending should, however, show up in TV station political files.

Michigan Campaign Finance Network executive director Rich Robinson for years has physically collected political ad files from TV stations. By comparing spending in the ad files to spending reported under the state’s campaign finance laws, Robinson found that from “2000 through 2010, $20.8 million, or 49.5 percent of all spending in Michigan Supreme Court election campaigns, was not reported to the State.” (The full report with other findings is here.)

Now that such files are being posted online, reporters elsewhere should be able to conduct similar analyses by comparing spending in TV political files to spending reported to FEC and the states. Are political campaigns and outside groups complying with state campaign finance laws? Do state laws require disclosure of all political spending, or are there significant gaps in the laws?

Robinson tells ProPublica: “For my money its the only way to get a sense of the spending. It’s part of creating a record of the extent of the failure of campaign finance disclosure.”


Show how ad rates can vary — and how it affects campaigns

TV station political files can help cast light on a previously opaque part of elections: how stations sometimes charge drastically different rates for the same ad slots. The Stamford Advocate pulled station files and found that, in Connecticut’s U.S. Senate race, Democratic Rep. Chris Murphy paid $900 for a spot on the evening news on a Hartford TV station while Republican Linda McMahon paid $40 for a similar spot. Why? Because McMahon’s campaign had ordered the ads in some cases “as early as the end of April” before rates rose.

There also can be large discrepancies between rates paid by candidates and outside groups because stations by law must offer candidates low rates. The Wall Street Journal found, for example, that the Obama campaign paid $2,000 to run a spot during "Dancing with the Stars" on the ABC affiliate in Cincinnati while the Republican National Committee paid $6,500 for a spot on the same program. (This dynamic has helped Obama because a bigger proportion of money on the Democratic side has gone directly to the president’s campaign.)

A word of caution here: stations offer different classes of ads at different rates, so it’s worth checking files closely and calling stations to verify your analysis of rates.

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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