(Glusco’s focus on finding partners to complete the picture is well founded, given research cited by the Sunlight Foundation from the Wesleyan Media Project. For a short time period in April, the Project found, more than half of the ad buys from the Obama campaign and two large PACs came in small TV markets not yet affected by the FCC’s rule to put ad buy information online.)
Assistance for such efforts may also come from beyond traditional journalism circles, if ProPublica’s experience is any indication. About 10 people from North Carolina have volunteered to help ProPublica crowdsource the paper documents behind campaign ad spending in this state, said Daniel Victor, ProPublica’s social media
manager editor. Before the FCC ruling, ProPublica launched a call to action with the headline, “If TV Stations Won’t Post Their Data on Political Ads, We Will.” Volunteers were asked to visit TV stations, copy or scan the paper documents, and share them with ProPublica (rather than asking contributors to record and input data themselves).
“We take care of the accuracy issue by requiring our contributors to send us the full PDF of the file,” Victor explained to me in an email exchange. Victor continued:
Stuart’s efforts [at WCNC] are phenomenal, but we depart on that issue. The problem with having contributors input data into a form is that it introduces the possibility of error or deception into the process. It requires much more vetting of those sources, and even if they are vetted, it’s not difficult to type 180,000 when you meant to type 170,000. Or, even worse, you might leave a zero off at the end.
So with simple document upload, community management is simplified.
“Since our contributors send the entire file, readers can be confident in the information since they’re seeing the full document themselves (we check for missing pages and won’t post incomplete files),” Victor wrote. “Then, should we choose to do further data analysis or visualization, we can input the data ourselves instead of relying on contributors we haven’t vetted.”
Victor says his project will continue despite the FCC rule change for the top TV markets.
“It should hopefully make our task easier, as we won’t need to crowdsource the top 50 markets should everything [from the FCC ruling] proceed as planned,” he wrote, “but that still leaves quite a few markets in swing states that we’ll still need to crowdsource. While Raleigh-Durham, Charlotte and Greensboro are in the Top 50, Wilmington and Greenville are not. We’d still hope to find people in those markets so the data can be useful statewide.”
Watson of WCNC plans to continue his efforts, too.
“We could use help,” he said, but he’s looking for people who can be relied on to check the paper files at key points in the campaigns. He’s focused on analysis of the data rather than gathering of raw reports.
“Here is the role of the paid journalist,” Watson said. “We’re going to add value.”
With the millions streaming from political campaigns to the broadcasters using public airwaves, the scope of this work may be beyond any individual news organization in North Carolina or elsewhere. But professional journalists from all platforms, student journalists, and “ordinary” citizens can all be of help in these efforts to bring greater transparency to the flow of political money.
Correction: This article originally misidentified ProPublica’s Daniel Victor. Victor is the social media editor, not the social media manager. Also, the article originally misspelled the name of Jodi Leese Glusco. The relevant sentences have been corrected. CJR regrets the errors.