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Kent State student journalists have tough time prying open TV political ad files

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Trying to get FCC records at Cleveland TV Stations from Karl Idsvoog on Vimeo.

Days before the Federal Communication Commission's closely-watched Friday vote on requiring local television stations to put political advertising information online, a group of Ohio college students made a powerful argument for why the commissioners should buck the pressure from the broadcasting industry and vote aye. Just look at the above video.

At issue is whether the stations should post online detailed information on political ad buys. Such information is currently available only in paper files that must be accessed in person and under supervision from station personnel. At a time when Citizens United and other court and regulatory decisions have allowed many politically active groups to shield the source of their funding, the stations' public records may provide an alternative source of important campaign finance information. Broadcasters contend the proposed requirement doing so would be costly and burdensome. A host of open government groups, including the Sunlight Foundation, argue otherwise.

Responding to a challenge by media critic Bill Moyers, the students -- members of Karl Idsvoog's journalism class at Kent State University -- visited the four top commercial stations in nearby Cleveland, a major market in the political battleground state of Ohio. Their video amply demonstrates just how high the hurdles are for citizens seeking access to what is supposed to be public information.

Irony alert: Three of the four television stations refused to allow a television camera on the premises. And only one station official consented to answer the single question the students wanted to ask: Should these records be put online. He said yes, which might get him in trouble with the bosses. Broadcast companies -- many of whom have news operations that might benefit journalistically from the ability to compare political ad buys across a state or a region -- have  been vigorously fighting the online posting requirement. 

Idsvoog told Sunlight he was surprised by the reception his students received at their local TV stations. "I was absolutely amazed that the stations wouldn't want to be helpful," he said. "I figured they would welcome students."

Still, he concluded that they learned an important lesson. "It gives them great experience in talking to people who don't want to talk to them," he said. Who knew that those people would be fellow members of the media?

WEWS, Channel 5, an ABC affiliate owned by Scripps Howard

WKYC, Channel 3, an NBC affiliate owned by Gannett

WOIO, Channel 19, a CBS affiliate owned by Raycomm

WJW, Channel 8, a Fox affiliate owned by Local TV LLC

The Sunlight Foundation is part of a coalition of media and good government groups working to put information from the TV stations political files online. For information on how to access the files at your local station, check out these helpful hints from one of our partners, the Free Press.  And watch this space for more information on our campaign, coming soon.