Pennsylvania: Help Keep TV Political Ads Transparent

(Flickr: ExeterAnna)

by Daniel Victor, ProPublica

Pennsylvanians know what it means to live in a swing state, and that typically includes seeing lots of political commercials on TV. Thanks to the April 24 Republican primary, the next few weeks will be no different.

As part of our “Free the Files” project, we need your help to ensure that the spending behind those ads is accessible to the public.

Each TV station in the U.S. keeps a detailed record of who is buying political ads, how much the ads cost, and when they are airing. It’s public data, but so far it’s been accessible only by physically visiting the station and asking to see “the public file.”

Since broadcasters are resisting a proposal to put the data online, we’re doing it for them. We need volunteers from each big TV market in Pennsylvania (see the table below) to visit the stations, make copies of the paper files, then scan and email them to us. We’ll help organize and post the disclosure documents on the web.

We still need volunteers to visit the stations during business hours. It takes about 15 to 30 minutes at the station, plus however long it takes to scan and email the files.

So far, more than 235 people nationwide have signed up but only six in Pennsylvania — and there are more than 25 stations to visit in six markets.

Are you a student? This might be the perfect project for you. Northwestern University students were our first contributors to the project. We’re also eager to work with news organizations, as we have with the Cincinnati Enquirer and Wisconsin State Journal. But anybody who has some spare time can do it.

To participate, please fill out this form. We ask that you do not visit the stations without first notifying us; we want to make sure that you are not duplicating someone else’s work.

Here are more detailed instructions, including how news organizations can use DocumentCloud to post the documents on their own sites.

For more on why it matters and what we can accomplish, see our original post.

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