NORTH CAROLINA—On April 27, the Federal Communications Commission made what CJR called “a good step toward transparency in the realm of money and politics” by ruling that local TV stations must move online their paper data on political ad buys. Network-affiliated stations in the top 50 markets will have to do this likely in the next few months; other stations will have until 2014 to comply.
In North Carolina, some news organizations aren’t waiting for this change to take effect, working now to gather and share data on television campaign advertising for stories ahead of today’s primary and in preparation for the general election.
“Television is the single greatest recipient of paid political advertising,” says investigative reporter Stuart Watson of Charlotte’s WCNC, an NBC affiliate. “Nothing quite touches television.”
In April, Watson forged a partnership with WRAL, a locally owned CBS affiliate in Raleigh, and WXII, an NBC affiliate owned by Hearst in the Triad market (Greensboro, High Point and Winston-Salem) to gather data on TV ad spending around the most volatile issue for North Carolina’s primary, a constitutional amendment that defines marriage as between a man and a woman only. The work generated stories at WRAL, WCNC, and WXII before the April 30th state deadline for campaign finance reports. The upshot of what they found in their own stations’ ad buy files? As WCNC’s headline put it: “Marriage amendment opponents outspend supporters on TV ads”—$457,410 to $230,600, with ads aired 500 times over two weeks in the Charlotte market alone.
The story idea took some guts. Walking from the newsroom to the advertising department of one’s own TV station and asking colleagues for revenue records is both unusual and uncomfortable.
“They are the ones who bring in the revenue that feeds my kids,” Watson said.
And reporting on efforts to fight the FCC rule change by the people who sign one’s paycheck is likewise awkward. Like many people on the business side of broadcasting, Dunia Shive, the president and CEO of Belo, which owns WCNC, urged the FCC to consider alternatives to the rule change (in Shive’s case, in an earnings call the day before the decision).
Watson also traveled to Washington, D.C. to report on the April 27th FCC meeting. He said he kept his travel expenses low and justified the trip to supervisors with an exclusive story for the local Charlotte market.
“My bosses should be congratulated,” he said, for airing his story from that trip and from the work he did with WRAL and WXII based on the public files. The TV industry as a whole has no tradition of reporting on itself, Watson said, and he is thankful that his bosses didn’t say no.
Plus, Watson said, “We were the only camera there” at the FCC hearing, with much attention from national media organizations like Bloomberg (video) and Politico as well as nonprofit groups interested in campaign spending transparency like the New America Foundation, the Sunlight Foundation, and Free Press, but no other TV stations.
In addition to undertaking the relatively unusual effort of reporting on one’s own station, WCNC’s Watson and Jodi Leese Glusco, director of content at WRAL, took another innovative step: creating reporting partnerships to gather and share far-flung data from markets in this big state. Glusco embraced Watson’s idea, and created a Google form so Watson and reporters in the Triad market could input data into a shared spreadsheet.
“We thought there would be a lot of stories to tell,” Glusco said in a phone interview.
WRAL plans to continue gathering data about campaign ad spending on television through the election season. “We are assembling a dataset,” she said, and the station plans, over time, to make it searchable to the public. Glusco said the station welcomes help from others during the campaign season.
“We would love to have a mountain station and an eastern partner,” she said. Asheville in the west and Wilmington in the east are two other big markets in North Carolina.
(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.