By Cassie Cope, 2015 JAWS Fellow
Campaign finance is the best beat ever, according to a journalist who investigates political spending.
That’s because someone has to follow the money, said Carrie Levine, a campaign finance reporter for the Center for Public Integrity.
“If someone is going to figure out who is getting rich here, who is breaking the rules, it is on us,” Levine said.
Levine was joined by Denise Roth Barber of the National Institute on Money in State Politics and Nancy Watzman of Television Archive in leading the “Washington for Sale 2016” session at the JAWS Conference and Mentoring Project. Alison Fitzgerald Kodjak of NPR moderated.
Reporting on campaign donors and spending allows voters to better understand how money influences government, Levine said.
She urged reporters to think of campaign finance as a business beat. Shell companies, pass-through transactions and creative accounting occur in campaign spending and donations as well as in business, she said.
Campaign finance reporters cannot always write stories that determine whether a candidate breaks the law, Levine said. When the legality is murky, she suggests letting the reader know that, by adding “it’s a legal gray area.”
Data, such as campaign fundraising and spending totals, is a starting point for a story, not end point, she said. She adheres to the “If you see something, say something” principle. If something looks suspicious in the data, investigate further.
“People do have to disclose something eventually, so stay on it,” she said.
Covering campaign finance has its own lingo, said another panelist, Denise Roth Barber, managing director of the National Institute on Money in State Politics, which is better known as followthemoney.org.
For example, the term “independent spending” means campaigns are directly urging a vote for or against a candidate.
However, the term “electioneering communication” means the intention to influence an election, but stops short of explicitly telling the audience how to vote, Barber said.
Political spending by groups whose donors remain hidden is called “dark money,” Barber said.
Dark money political nonprofit groups can surface in political ads, said another panelist, Nancy Watzman of Television Archive.
“Suddenly, you see an ad and it’s ‘Puppies for McCain’” paying for it, Watzman said. That does not allow voters to determine who paid for the ad.
Television Archive – a new project of the Internet archive — will track TV political advertisements during the 2016 elections to provide downloadable data on political ads in 20 media markets. Reporters can see where an ad aired, how often it aired and when it aired. The database launches Dec. 1.
The National Institute on Money in State Politics tracks political fundraising and spending by state-level candidates in all 50 states. It has a searchable database that’s available free to reporters and the public.
Barber provided this list of resources for journalists who want to write about money in politics:
State Disclosure Agencies http://www.followthemoney.org/resources/state-disclosure-agencies/
Federal Election Commission http://www.fec.gov
Department of Labor Union Filings https://olms.dol-esa.gov/query/getOrgQry.do
Federal Communications Commission https://stations.fcc.gov
Center for Public Integrity http://www.publicintegrity.org/politics
Campaign Finance Institute http://www.cfinst.org/
Campaign Legal Center http://www.campaignlegalcenter.org/
Center for Responsive Politics http://www.opensecrets.org/
Center for Political Accountability http://www.politicalaccountability.net
Citizen Audit http://citizenaudit.org
National Conference of State Legislatures http://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/campaign-finance.aspx
National Institute on Money in State Politics http://www.followthemoney.org/
Project Vote Smart http://www.votesmart.org
Sunlight Foundation http://www.sunlightfoundation.com