In an ongoing effort to reveal the hundreds of millions being spent on political advertising this election season, Youngstown State University’s The News Outlet welcomed more than 50 volunteers from the community at large to help review and log political ad files.
The files, available online from television stations across the country’s top-50 media markets, document who bought what air time and for how much.
Until August, when the Federal Communications Commission began requiring major market stations to publish the records online, they were available only by visiting the stations in person.
The News Outlet, a collaborative effort among YSU, two other universities and several media organizations, including The Vindicator, is aimed at giving students comprehensive reporting experience and providing quality content for the public.
The larger effort taking place in all 50 media markets is being spearheaded by ProPublica, a national nonprofit investigative news organization, as well as the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to government transparency.
“Advertising spending in political campaigns is just huge. They’re spending millions and millions of dollars to influence your vote,” said Alyssa Lenhoff, journalism director at YSU, as she addressed the crowd Monday before data entry began. “It’s not just the Romney and Obama campaigns. It’s not that simple. There are so many special-interest groups involved in this.”
Thus far, “Free the Files,” as ProPublica is calling it, has helped to track $421 million in so-called “dark money spending” this election season.
The News Outlet has led the charge, by leading the country in uncovering the most files, including $90.7 million worth of spending on political advertisements in the Cleveland, Akron and Canton media market. Youngstown is not considered a major market, but students with The New Outlet have been collecting local expense files and manually scanning them to track spending here.
“Free the Files” is necessary because stations in major-media markets upload the documents in a PDF format, which makes data entry nearly impossible. Volunteers have to look up the cost figures meticulously and enter them into an online database created by ProPublica.
In particular, spending has inundated the airwaves during the 2012 general election after a landmark decision in 2010 by the U.S. Supreme Court that prohibited the government from restricting independent political expenditures by corporations and unions.