How reporters can mine political ad spending records

The Federal Communications Commission stirred debate last week when it voted to require some broadcast television stations to post their political ad spending records online. The four largest broadcasters in the top 50 markets soon will be required to post the records online; all other stations are exempt until 2014.

During a live chat, we discussed the vote with Columbia University’s Steve Waldman, formerly of the FCC, and WCNC-TV Investigative Reporter Stuart Watson.

Waldman recently referred to the records as a “gold mine of data” that will “help make our political system more transparent.” But not all broadcasters see it that way. Many have argued that putting this information online would be too costly, and that in doing so, they would be letting their competitors know how much they charge for ads.

While many TV stations have avoided reporting on this issue, Watson has made it a point to inform viewers about it. He noted that “very few members of the public know of the existence of the so-called ‘public file’ available for inspection at television stations, and even fewer people understand what’s in that file.”

WCNC’s I-Team scanned political ad spending records from the public files of WBTV, WCCB, WCNC, and WSOC and entered the net and gross costs into a spreadsheet that Watson hopes to update and repost online. ProPublica, meanwhile, has asked readers to visit their local TV stations and copy the records so the site can post them online.

During today’s chat, Waldman and Watson talked with Columbia Journalism Review’s Greg Marx about the questions the vote raises, the value of putting political advertising reports online, and how journalists can mine this data for stories.

You can replay the chat here:

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