ProPublica reporter Marcus Stern will don his press badge at the Super Bowl this Sunday, but he won’t be covering the game. He’ll be looking for members of Congress who are there, figuring out how they got their tickets and trying to attend whatever fundraisers they’re holding.
Stern, who plans to reveal his findings in a ProPublica story on Monday, has had some reporting help along the way. Knowing it would be too much for one person to contact all U.S. Congress members, ProPublica turned its “Super Bowl Blitz” investigation into a crowdsourcing effort and asked professional journalists and the public for help.
The project is an example of how one news organization can tap into professional journalists nationwide to turn an 11th-hour idea into a collaborative investigation.
“Any time you try to survey 535 members of Congress it’s going to be daunting,” Stern said. “To some extent, this is going to be a test of the privacy or the openness of members of Congress when it comes to fundraising.”
Although the crowdsourcing element is just one part of ProPublica’s project, it helps drive the purpose of the overall investigation, which is to find out how members of Congress got their tickets and whether they will be fundraising at Super Bowl XLIV. So far, only four members of Congress have said they’re attending.
So what’s the big deal if they attend? Members of Congress, Stern explained, aren’t allowed to accept Super Bowl tickets as gifts and are required to pay face value for them. “It has in the past been ‘the Super Bowl of fundraising,’ ” Stern said. “It’s less so today.”
Amanda Michel, who spearhead the crowdsourcing aspect of the project, said she’s found that it’s not unusual for professional journalists to want to help out with these types of crowdsourcing efforts. This isn’t the first time she’s led a project like this. In May, she helped launch the ProPublica Reporting Network aimed at helping readers “commit acts of journalism.”
The Super Bowl Blitz investigation has attracted citizen journalists, retired journalists and working journalists from dozens of different news organizations. Fifteen of those news organizations, including American Public Media, MinnPost and the Orange County Register, asked their readers and listeners to help out with the initiative by contacting their Congress members.
Journalists from the other 11 news organizations contacted ProPublica with information they had received from calls they made on their own time. It made it easier, Michel said, to solicit information that journalists across the country could have very well already tried to obtain for local stories.
The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, for instance, has taken a local angle on the issue and ran stories earlier this week about Mayor Ray Nagin attending the Super Bowl on taxpayers’ dime.
Michel has been keeping track of the Congress members’ responses, or lack thereof, in a Google document and then updating the information on ProPublica’s Super Bowl Blitz Web page.
“We gave some of our partners access to our Google doc so they could update it,” Michel said. “That made it much easier to collaborate.” The Huffington Post Investigative Fund drew attention to the project last month when it embedded the chart of information on its Web site.
Stern said the findings detailed on the chart are not all that surprising: The majority of Congress members contacted said they’re not attending, four said yes, and some gave vague responses or refused to say. Others have not returned phone calls. Stern expects the crowdsourcing effort will result in responses from three-quarters of the Congress members by Super Bowl day.
Among the four attending is Rep. John Conyers, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, who is hosting a Super Bowl fundraiser. For $5,000, donors can get one ticket to the fundraiser and one ticket to the game, Stern reported last week.
Stern said the public’s need to know this type of information is crucial, and yet it remains a story that he believes is largely untold. “It’s a completely invisible world shrouded in secrecy, and yet it’s so vital to what happens in Washington,” he said.
Super Bowl Blitz, he noted, is an example of how journalists and the public can work together to hold political figures accountable.
“We have politicians who issue press releases on every little thing they do, but you will never see them issue a press release on how much money they got from this company or this CEO,” he said. “We’ve got to find a way to reduce the expectation of politicians that they can get together over martinis or steaks or cigars behind closed doors and pass money.”
The Super Bowl project is just one of many that Stern hopes to pursue as part of an ongoing investigation into politicians’ fundraising efforts leading up to the November elections.
“We want to shed a little more light on the fundraising process,” he said. “To adapt a football metaphor, this is just the kickoff.”