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Great TV: Campaign Finance Stories
By Karyn Dest

The assignment editor turns to you at your morning meeting. You pitch stories about that night’s city council meeting and a local canned food drive. You have one more story idea scribbled on the back page of your notebook, but you are hesitant to pitch it. It is a campaign finance story. The story is complicated and heavy on numbers, a combination you suspect will elicit the death blow response from the assignment editor: “That’s a newspaper story.”

Campaign finance stories are not automatically newspaper stories. In fact, campaign finance data are a great source of visual and engaging stories. And, sometimes, they are even better television stories than newspaper stories because you can show the donors, and the public can see the flaws in the system.

As any reporter, regardless of medium, learns, the key is storytelling. This concept is just as true in campaign finance stories as it is in feature stories.

“The reporter has to find something compelling that the viewers care about,” says News 12 Long Island’s Mark Lagerkvist. “The story has to be much more than numbers. It has to demonstrate the foibles of the current system – and how it affects public policy and the democratic process.”

What kind of legislation is before your legislature? Who is giving money? Who is getting money? “Highlight the human factor, interview the donors,” says Sheila Krumholz, Research Director for the Center for Responsive Politics. The donors are candid, she says, and often enjoy sharing with you how much they gave and why they gave it. “Allow [donors’] egos to be stroked,” says Krumholz.

In Missouri, for example, I noticed some “familiar” names on the donor list to then-US Senate candidate Democrat Mel Carnahan. The names included Barbra Streisand, Michael Douglas, Rob Reiner. Hollywood meets politics – in the middle of Missouri! Though the story included big numbers, it also included big stars. After grabbing some file video of the celebrities, I had a story that was visual and entertaining – and, dare I say, even better suited for television than newspaper. I showed viewers how our state’s US Senate race, two thousand miles from tinsel town, had a little Hollywood.

Admittedly, not all campaign finance databases have Streisand’s name. But, there are still plenty of ways to do good campaign finance stories that make even better television.

One way is to use analogies. Reporters have a hard time fully grasping campaign finance, let alone the trouble our viewers have understanding the system. But, what if you analogize campaign finance to a horse race, as News 12 Long Island’s Mark Lagerkvist did? The viewer begins to understand not only the dollar figures, but what those numbers really mean.

KOMU-TV reporter Allison McLaughlin took a cue from Lagerkvist in her campaign finance story. “I related the influx of party money to state senate races to NASCAR and how drivers (like candidates) need sponsors to win,” says KOMU-TV reporter Allison McLaughlin.

While analogies, like McLaughlin’s NASCAR contest and Lagerkvist’s horse race, help explain campaign finance to viewers, there is yet another way to drive the point home. Phrases like “donor,” “soft money,” and “campaign finance” may help your viewer change the channel because these terms are difficult to understand. But, if you take care not to severely bias your story, try using terms, as Lagerkvist has, like “fat-cat fundraisers” and “high-roller dinners.”

Finally, Krumholz encourages reporters: “[Do not] be daunted by the donation data – you can do it!” Once you understand the campaign finance data, if you approach the data as you would any other report, and tell the story, you will have a rich source of original, visual story ideas – and then campaign finance stories will not have to be reserved for newspapers only.

Karyn Dest is a data analyst for the Campaign Finance Information Center.