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  • Go back to Tracker -- Winter 1998

    Making the Data Easy to Use
    Margret Murphy

    Undeterred by state laws that made meaningful campaign finance analysis a paper nightmare but enforcement mostly a paper tiger, consortiums of journalists in Indiana and Illinois used their own electronic campaign finance databases to show relationships between contributors and candidates.

    The reporters produced some of the most ambitious and extensive types of these stories ever attempted in their respective states. Their efforts highlight for other journalists how to move campaign finance reporting from merely "quid" (who gave what) pieces toward "quo" (what they got in exchange) stories.

    The project began almost three years ago with a tip from some Indiana broadcasters. "They called us and said, 'You should see what's happening in our state,'" said Diane Renzulli, director of state projects for the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) in Washington, D.C., which oversaw the conversion of the states' paper records into a database. A grant from the Joyce Foundation helped fund the project. Renzulli said Indiana was a natural choice for CPI, a nonprofit, nonpartisan public service research group. The Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, President Emeritus of the University of Notre Dame, serves on CPI's advisory board and the Center had interns from Indiana.

    "We wanted to look at someplace that wasn't a New York, Texas or California," Renzulli said. "Somewhere in the heartland." The Center copied the paper records for campaign finance reports for contributions to state legislative candidates made in 1994, 1995 and 1996, a total of more than 46,000 records. CPI gave the data to each of the 19 news organizations at the same time, along with a 40-page analysis. The data were embargoed to give the reporters time to do analysis and write their stories.

    The stories hit home for readers of The Indianapolis Star and The Indianapolis News. The papers received more than 2,500 reader responses to its first round of stories, a five-day series by Suzanne McBride, Janet Williams and Linda Graham Caleca that ran in February 1996.

    "No one had been able to show this in Indiana before, how much money was spent on statehouse races and how much was special interest money," said McBride, a statehouse reporter who has worked on the project for much of the last two years.

    The Star and The News reporters took the CPI database and added information about campaign expenditures by current legislators. McBride said it took about a month to enter the 11,000 records for their August 1997 series about campaign expenditures.

    "We catalogued everything," McBride said. "One reason we wanted to do this was legislators had been telling us they have to raise money because TV and media are very expensive." The reporters' analysis showed candidates spent 20 percent of their funds on media, far less than they claimed.

    Illinois Challenge

    Pleased with the response from the Indiana reporters and spurred by the growing focus by the media on the campaign finance hearing at the federal level, Renzulli said CPI turned its attention to Illinois and formed a consortium of 14 news organization there, each of which ran some type of story about campaign contributions or expenditures.

    Illinois posed a special challenge for the Center -- contributors to candidates are not required to disclose the names of their employers. The Center worked with Prof. Kent Redfield at the University of Illinois-Springfield, an expert in Illinois campaign finance, plus used a lot of statewide directories, to identify industry codes for the donations. Industry coding helped the reporters identify which special interests were giving to candidates via individual employees' donations.

    Renzulli said both editors and reporters were enthusiastic about the project. "They said they've always wanted to do something like this, but didn't have the manpower or resources," Renzulli said. "The consortium was helpful to us, too, because reporters helped identify contributors from their areas."

    The Center plans to look at financial disclosure at the statehouse level. "We're hoping to move on to looking at issues in state legislatures nationwide, at conflicts of interest between outside income sources (employment, stock holdings, gifts) and their legislative duties, Renzulli said.

    McBride's advice to reporters setting up their own databases is how you hope to use it before starting the coding and data entry. She said while she had used computer-assisted reporting before she started working on this project using computers.

    McBride said other reporters at The Star and The News use the database on a regular basis, including some who have looked at how much money came from the insurance industry.

    Renzulli echoed the value of the data to reporters other than those on the political team. "I would hope more news organizations will get databases on computers and use them for day-to-day stories," Renzulli said. "As information becomes more accessible, news organizations should always use this when writing on big players in the capital."

    Margret Murphey can be reached by e-mail at margret@nicar.org