Go back to Tracker -- Winter 1998
Making the Data Easy to Use
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
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
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
"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.
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'
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
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 email@example.com