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  • Go back to Tracker -- Winter 1998

    Taking Action
    Brant Houston
    IRE Executive Director

    This first issue of Tracker represents IRE's major push into providing resources about one of the most critical issues in the U.S.: the financing of political campaigns.

    For more than two decades IRE has provided journalists and researchers with publications and seminars that show how to dig into documents and databases to come up with meaningful stories and reports.

    In the past few years, however, IRE has also embarked on specific ventures, including the teaching of computer-assisted reporting and the supporting of foreign journalists who want to form professional networks and learn better reporting techniques. The Campaign Finance Information Center is IRE's newest step in this series of focused projects.

    Funded by the Joyce Foundation of Chicago, the CFIC intends to be a one-stop shopping venue for those seeking to untangle the complex interplay of political contributions and favoritism, particularly on the state and local level.

    Looking Ahead

    Over the coming year, the CFIC will collect as many electronic databases on campaign finance as possible and develop a powerful search engine that will be able to scan those databases for one name or company or special interest.

    Later we plan to link those databases with other government information, exposing possible quid pro quo arrangements.

    At the same time, the CFIC will put together on-line educational materials and seminars on campaign finance, collect print and broadcast stories, serve as a connector between journalists and researchers and set up a listserv for discussions on methods and findings.

    Most important, we plan to collaborate with other groups studying campaign finance, pooling our resources wherever and whenever possible and we hope this first issue of Tracker is symbolic of that intent.

    In the following pages, you will find articles by many of the different groups that are scrutinizing campaign finances.

    We hope these articles will not only provide journalists and researchers with background information on the groups, but also provide a link, figuratively (and literally through the Web) to the people running those groups.

    Tracker will appear both in hard copy and on the Web and we believe Tracker's best value will be on the Web because so much of the basic work on campaign finance is done in electronic documents and databases.

    If you go to the rest of our Web site, through links provided by this newsletter, you will also find a complete list of state government sites with connections directly to election boards and ethics commissions. You will also find links to Freedom of Information groups that support journalists and researchers in their efforts to identify and obtain crucial government documents.

    Providing Access

    In addition, IRE has placed on the Web indexes of campaign finance stories and some of the stories themselves that have targeted campaign finance. The stories initially have come from IRE's extensive resource center of more than 11,000 print and broadcast entries in IRE's annual contest. But in the coming year we will add non-contest stories on local, state, and federal political campaigns and index those.

    Furthermore, CFIC will put together some of IRE's best tipsheets and talks in a searchable handbook. From there, CFIC will form a special on-line teaching area for journalists who seek to improve their database and research skills while working on campaign coverage.

    Since early 1994, the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting (a joint program of IRE and the Missouri School of Journalism) has taught thousands of journalists how to use the Internet, spreadsheets and database managers to do better reporting. The CFIC will borrow NICAR's techniques and expand on them in its training.

    Many of the non-profit groups that collect and release campaign finance databases have told us journalists desperately want and need database training. They say that without the training journalists take advantage of only a fraction of the valuable information provided. The CFIC plans to address that shortcoming directly during the 1998 election year. It is clear that the databases and documents have been barely mined and that training will permit journalists to dig deep into buried disclosures.

    Thinking Large

    This is one of our most ambitious projects, but we are confident that with your help and cooperation we can construct relevant and educational center. As the months progress and our Web site expands, please let us know how we can improve or augment our services.

    Brant Houston can be reached at (573) 882-2042, or send e-mail to <brant@ire.org>.