Panelists share tips on uncovering the murky world of campaign finance

Story by Will Racke
Video by Kat Lonsdorf
Medill News Service

Veteran political and campaign finance reporters revealed some trade secrets for covering the intersection of money and politics during a panel discussion at the SABEW 2016 annual conference.

Friday’s session, “New Tricks for Covering Campaign Finance,” gave business reporters an opportunity to learn about sources, leads and story ideas hidden in the nebulous world of political money donations.

Sitting on the panel were Julie Bykowicz, Associated Press political reporter; Michael Beckel, politics reporter for the Center for Public Integrity; and Derek Willis, news applications developer for ProPublica.

The panel members explained how the proliferation of super PAC and “dark money” political groups have added a layer of complexity to campaign finance reporting but have also given reporters a wealth of new story ideas to pursue in their beat reporting.

“You can find reporting streams by looking at who is donating to super PACs,” Bykowicz said. “We’ve seen a marriage between candidates and super PACs. For a lot of people, they are one in the same.”

Super PACs are independent committees that pool donations in support of their preferred candidates. Because they operate independently of campaigns, super PACs are not required to cap the amount of money they receive from any one person or corporation. While donations are unlimited, super PACs must file disclosure reports with the Federal Election Commission that identify their donors.

Those reports, explained Beckel, are a crucial fount of information for reporters trying to find out which corporations, trade groups, and labor unions are supporting which candidates and why.

Journalists can go directly to the FEC website, which allows searches by donor and recipient, to access mountains of financial data from House, Senate, and Presidential campaigns going back to 1993.

Not all campaign contributions are so transparent, however. Politically active nonprofits, also known by their IRS designation 501(c)(4), don’t have to disclose to the FEC who has donated to them. That “dark money” leaves many stories for enterprising reporters.

“The presumption is that donations will be disclosed, but it’s like a Russian doll,” ProPublica’s Willis said. “We have a [campaign finance] regime at the state and federal level where a lot of money is disclosed, but some is not.”

Beckel recommended that journalists regularly check the annual filings of 501(c)(4) groups, which must submit an IRS Form 990 detailing their activities and financial information. He said that the website is a particulary useful place to do keyword searches for Form 990 data. Labor unions are also required to file reports on their campaign financing activities. Reporters can find their disclosure reports, known as LM-2 forms, on the Department of Labor’s website.

Campaign finance panel
Derek Willis discusses campaign finance coverage tips during the SABEW 2016 annual conference May 20, with moderator Kat Duffy (right) and fellow panelists Michael Beckel (left) and Julie Bykowicz (not pictured). (Xiumei Dong/Medill News Service)

According to the panelists, digging into campaign donations can be difficult because it is a subject that donors — and recipients — are hesitant to discuss openly. Willis recommended easing into interviews by asking why donors are supporting a particular candidate and not immediately focusing on dollar amounts.

“People are reluctant to speak,” said AP’s Bykowicz, so reporters have to be persistent if they want to find donors willing to speak on the record. “It takes a lot of legwork, but they are out there.”

As for story ideas, the panel recommended that reporters start by identifying which business leaders and prominent companies in their own backyards are the most politically involved. From there, journalists can use campaign finance filings to identify which issues those donors find the most important and what they expect in return for their contributions.

“See who are the big money players in your area,” Beckel said. “Use the data as a starting point to see who to reach out to.”

Best in Business Book Awards

Official Media Partner

BIB Book Awards Sponsors

Exclusive Sponsor
Investing & Personal Finance category

Exclusive Sponsor
Business & Reporting category

Official Content Distributor