Democracy Fund, Rita Allen Foundation underwrite effort to track political communications

Logo showing the Liberty Bell with the crack and the clapper forming a "70," representing the Committee of 70

The routine flouting of federal disclosure laws by TV stations and political advertisers; a trade association buying $250,000 in flattering TV ads for the chairman of a congressional committee; the identity of a donor spending millions to influence a key constituency in advance of the 2012 election.

These are just a few of the otherwise undisclosed facts about the ways money can influence politics that the Sunlight Foundation has unearthed in the two years since we began monitoring political advertising through our Political Ad Sleuth and Ad Hawk trackers. And it’s why we’re pleased to be part of a team that’s just received grants from the Rita Allen Foundation and the Democracy Fund to expand and deepen our work in this area.

The $125,000 from the Democracy Fund and $100,000 from Rita Allen will go to support Philly Political Media Watch, an effort to analyze the political communications (and the money behind them) in one of the nation’s largest TV markets during the home stretch of this election year. Our lead partner on the project, the Internet Archive, already has a site that’s compiling political ads from the various candidates and groups advertising on Philadelphia-area TV stations this year. There’s a crosswalk to Sunlight’s money in politics resources, which allows voters for the first time to go directly from the ad they are viewing to the money behind it with the click of a mouse. Here’s an example of how:

Image of page from the Internet Archive listing politically active committees in Pennsylvania

If we decide to follow the pink arrow and take a look at the ads about Tom Wolf, the Democratic candidate for governor, we’ll find ourselves on a page listing those ads. Click on one, and you’ll be served up with a pop up that allows you to play the ad while viewing sponsoring information.

image of pop up from Internet Archive site with ad player and sponsoring information below

The pink arrow here points to a hyperlink that will take you to specially designed pages on Sunlight’s Influence Explorer where you can choose from a menu of information we have on the sponsoring committee.

Image of Influence Explorer page showing links to data on the Tom Wolf for governor committee

That’s how it’s supposed to work. But in the spirit full disclosure that is Sunlight’s, we hasten to add that this project is very much a work in progress. Sunlight developers are still working out bugs in the crosswalk. Internet Archive coders are still tagging ads. And other partners and volunteers (more about them later) are busy adding more bells and whistles. And while we’ve been able to add real-time campaign finance data for office-seekers in Pennsylvania, thanks to that state’s relatively clean data, New Jersey campaign finance data has proved too messy to parse.

Even so, we decided to share it with the public at this point because the election is nigh and we think we have information that the voters will benefit from knowing before they go to the polls.

One key question that this will help answer, thanks to research and analysis by a team of graduate students led by the University of Delaware’s professor Danilo Yanich: How much do TV stations make from political advertising and how much political coverage do they give viewers in returns. We will be able to answer the first question thanks to political ad contracts that Sunlight has compiled in Political Ad Sleuth. Yanich and his students are looking carefully through broadcasts recorded by the Internet Archive to answer the second.

Much of our analysis is made possible by the hard work of another partner, Philadelphia’s Committee of Seventy, and the volunteers that venerable good government group has recruited. Because ad contract files uploaded to the Federal Communications Commission are in PDF format, the information they contain can’t be analyzed until those documents are opened and the data painstakingly entered into forms on Political Ad Sleuth. Committee of Seventy volunteers have done much of that work for Philadelphia’s ad files and the information is available for download as a spreadsheet on this page.

Our work in the political ad tracking area has always been about crowd sourcing. So, see a problem that needs to be fixed? Got an idea about how we can do better? Want to volunteer to help enter data? Email us here.

The goal here is not to create the perfect website or tool by Nov. 4. The goal is to launch a dialogue and create a template for partnerships that we hope can be replicated in other communities in time for the 2016 presidential election.

In that respect, we feel confident we are well on our way. The Philly Political Media Watch project is not only a model of information gathering, but a model for coalition building and civic engagement: In the course of launching and implementing this project, we have involved a diverse network of contributors. Besides those mentioned above, we have received invaluable assistance from the University of Pennsylvania’s Linguistics Data Consortium and as well as a number of Philadelphia journalists. Most important is the participation of a wide range of Philadelphia citizens, whose work we celebrated here. Underlying our efforts here is a belief by all of our partners that democracy is a participatory sport. The more openings we can provide for walk ons, the better.

For Sunlight, this project represents the continuation of work begun in 2012, largely at the instigation of the Democracy Fund’s Joe Goldman. In the late winter of that year, he gathered a group of open government advocates together to ask how we would handle the anticipated flood of “dark money,” (the term Sunlight’s Bill Allison coined for campaign expenditures that can’t be traced to donors) anticipated in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.

Out of Goldman’s nudge was born Political Ad Sleuth, a project Sunlight launched in partnership with Free Press because we knew that the TV stations where they buy ads were the one place mystery meat campaign groups had to leave a paper trail. Our reporting group made extensive use of the data, proving the public interest in having it online — something that may have been a factor in the FCC’s decision over the summer to expand the requirement for online posting of the ad files to all U.S. broadcast outlets. Now we are urging the regulators to let the sunlight shine on radio and non-traditional TV providers as well.

One immediate benefit from having an even limited number of ad buy files online: The ability to scrutinize them systematically and watchdog how well the TV stations and advertisers were meeting federal disclosure requirements. Not very, our reporter-developer Jacob Fenton found. His work resulted in a complaint to the FCC by Sunlight and other partners. In the wake of a strong response from FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, we’re starting to see much better compliance.

A commitment to technology, sunlight and collaboration has already taken us a long way towards opening up a heretofore hidden area of influence. With the help of the Rita Allen Foundation and the Democracy Fund, we’re hoping for many more transparency returns.