Places Journalists Should Go for Politics

Backgrounding Candidates

  • Has the candidate served on a Board of Directors for a publicly traded company? Check the Securities and Exchange Commission filings to see what the person earned, and what, if any, federal contracts that company had.
  • Is that company a defense contractor? Check the Center for Public Integrity files.
  • Here is a ranking of contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan doing business with the U.S. government. How many of them also give to the candidate(s) you are following?
  • IRE keeps great samples of recent investigations on campaign filings.
  • Don't overlook the filings in your local elections office. Often federal candidates will have run on the local level where they had to disclose (in Florida for example) an actual income tax filing. It is a bonanza of information about income, business holdings, child support, children's names, ages, and other data.
  • Of course, don't forget to look in state court for divorce filings. And check federal bankruptcy courts for filings.
  • You can use the federal PACER system online to access these records or just make a quick courthouse run.
  • It is always smart, even if you know the candidate fairly well, to check state and federal civil and criminal files before every race.
  • Does your candidate have a permit or state license? Go to Search Systems Public Records to see the status of that license and to see if there are any disciplinary actions pending or adjudicated.
  • Check the property that the candidate owns. Here is a place to look up property ownership and descriptions and values. Some states include lien holder names and even how much was originally financed. It can be fun to run their home through Census data to get a description of their neighborhood. You may find that even in a diverse community, the candidates lives in a highly segregated area. Go here to find out the specific characteristics of a neighborhood.
  • I always like to ask if the candidate is a member of any club, lodge, or fraternal organization. Does that club encourage integration, equal rights for women?
  • What do U.S. House Members have to disclose that might be interesting? See the Clerk of the House site that describes everything from personal gift disclosures to travel (including foreign travel) disclosures. You certainly should examine these. Most of these are not yet available online, but are easy to ask for.
  • How has that candidate voted on key legislation in the past? Look up their record easily. This website gives you quick access to key votes. Thousands of candidates and officials, five basic categories: backgrounds, issue positions, voting records, campaign finances, and performance evaluations.
  • You can also see how often federal office holders vote with various special interest groups (compiled by Project Vote Smart).
  • You can also look up major speeches or words used in speeches by using Project Vote Smart. Here is an example:
  • You can use the Thomas engine to look up federal legislation that is pending or passed. Find how many bills a candidate has sponsored or co-sponsored, and read the bills online. The site will also give you the bill's status and final disposition. Just choose a congressional session and type in the candidate's name.
  • Don't forget to check local voter records to see if they have been voting in local and state elections at home.
  • Check all claims of education, civic involvement, and charitable work. To check charities and nonprofits, go to Guidestar, which indexes the I-990 filings required of all non profits who take in $25K or more a year. Of course, churches are not required to file I-990s. For example, we might want to know what charities Sen. Bob Graham was involved with. If you type in his name (use the "keywords" box), you will find out that he once founded a charity with a famous rock-and-roll singer.
  • State lawmakers must file a "conflict of interest" statement in all 50 states. It is a disclosure of all personal or financial conflicts that office holder has that might conflict with his/her legislative duties. For example, a remarkable number of state banking and insurance committee members on the state level also sit on bank boards of directors.
  • Read the candidate's website from years past. This website has been taking snapshots of billions of web pages since 1996.
  • Pictorial Directory of Congress. When you need a photo in a hurry.
  • Candidate schedules and calendars online.
  • Websites for presidential candidates from

Political Money Sites

  • Political Money Online (not a government site) — Data and reports on campaign finance, lobbying, and soft money in the U.S. Created by Tony Raymond and Kent Cooper, both formerly of the Federal Election Commission.
  • The federal government's official site for financial disclosures and candidate filings.
  • — With this site, you can determine how much individual sectors, professions, or interests, such as car dealers, give to candidates. You can also look up individual donors by name or business. On the federal level, OpenSecrets does an excellent job compiling FEC documents. They also track hot races.
    • Open Secrets also has great tools that allow you to explore a candidate's spending, check by check. On the lower-left part of the front page for federal office holders, you can read their official personal financial disclosures, which will reveal personal financial holdings and debts.
    • Get local. Find out who is giving to whom. Enter a zip code and see the top contributors or all contributors.
    • Look out for "soft money" which comes from corporations as opposed to individuals. If you search for a company name, you may get records for individual donors associated with that company as well as official company contributions.
    • Quick look at what has changed in political contributions laws.
  • Fundrace 2004 neighbor search — Easy to use and fun; includes a city-by-city mapping program.
  • Map the money — See where each candidate finds support.
  • Lobbyist Disclosure Forms for the Senate — I might want to know who has spent more than a million dollars lobbying senators. I would start here and select the "Amount Reported" button (because that is all we are trying to learn now). Then enter the figure "1,000,000" and click the "greater than" arrow. Here is the result.

Political News and Issue Sites

  • 1st Headlines Politics — A constantly updated compendium of links to news stories on politics.
  • ABC News' The Note — A super-insider news site, includes candidate schedules and a
    round-up of stories about each candidate. Note: The Note only stays current for one day. It does have a limited archive to stories it linked to.
  • C-SPAN covers matters in depth in ways most do not.
  • tracks elections stories daily. This is a newsletter that people in office, especially local and state government read. The site collects by city, state, and national political races.
  • is a constantly updated political news clipping service.
  • Politics Online — This is the kind of insider website that political organizers go to find out how others are using the web. Includes a politics state-by-state search box.
  • Taegan Goddard's Political Wire — A free wire service dedicated to politics. You can search state by state for political stories constantly updated and linked
  • <BR"HTTP: cat_state_house.html
    Roll Call — The newspaper of Capital Hill, including state legislature audio and video feeds.
  • Tyndall Report — Measures how many minutes of network news is devoted to topics each week, archived to 1987.
  • <BR"HTTP:
    The Washington Post's "On Politics" section. <B"HTTP: P
  • The Washington Post's elections page, including an election calendar.
  • Websites for 34 U.S. senators whose terms expire this year — from C-SPAN.

Election Law and Background


New Ideas in Coverage

  • The Hollywood Reporter reports:

    ABC News announced that its 2004 election coverage will include three high-tech-laden buses, described by executives as "mobile bureaus and mobile studios" that are designed to give reporters more flexibility in filing stories on the road; partnerships with two media outlets that reach school-age children; and expanded Internet coverage, including a new 12:30 p.m. ET live news show on its streaming "ABC News Live" channel on RealNetworks' RealOne service.

  • is what it sounds like — an instant action alert system.
  • — An interesting and influential liberal political website. This is the group that flooded the FCC with e-mails and phone calls on the media ownership question.
  • created a very user-friendly profile site for the presidential candidates, which they call the Campaign Field Guide. Especially interesting are the "buzzword" and "agenda" summaries. Buzzwords are the words the candidates often use. Also look at the "flip-flop" sections for each candidates to see how their views/positions have changed.
  • is an interesting and influential conservative website.
  • Truth-testing of political ads — the largest collection I know of from the Best Practices in Television Journalism project.
  • More truth-testing — in 2002, the Lawrence Journal World in Kansas did a lot of truth testing of political ads. You can see their project here.
  • Learn more about TV ads — See PBS' "30-Second Candidate." Go behind the scenes of your candidates' ad machines.
  • The Political Communications Center — Home to a collection of 70,000 political commercials going back to 1936.<B"HTTP: P
  • Whack-a-Pol A fun interactive site that helps you compare your views with candidates.

Candidate Weblogs/Blogs

In a new twist in political campaigning, some candidates have been going online.

  • The DNC has a blog called "Kicking Ass: Daily Dispatches from the DNC."
  • Howard Dean was the first Presidential candidate to create a blog, Blog for America, as part of his Internet communication strategy in March 2003. The Dean campaign also created, a blog targeting younger voters.
  • has a tab that tells you the most popular links mentioned in blogs. It is a way to know what is on people's minds. Remember, just because it's on bloggers' minds may or may not reflect on what the rest of the world is thinking.
  • The first candidate anywhere to write a blog, at least as far as anyone knows, is Tara Grubb (currently candidate for mayor of Greensboro, N.C., started her blog when she was running for Congress last fall). Now some other local candidates are blogging too.

Campaign Committees (list and links from Roll Call)

Government Links

Data/StatisticsHere are some quick places to go to get facts about those places you parachute into:

Special Interests Links (list from Roll Call)

Project Vote Smart, by the way, also keeps an extensive collection of links to think tanks.

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    Al Tompkins

    Al Tompkins is The Poynter Institute’s senior faculty for broadcasting and online. He has taught thousands of journalists, journalism students and educators in newsrooms around the world.


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