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American Journalism Review
Campaign Finance on the Web  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   August/September 2004

Campaign Finance on the Web   

By Rachel Smolkin

The Internet has revolutionized campaign finance reporting. But Al May, interim director of George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs, cautions that "the danger is reporters become totally dependent" on campaign finance sites without understanding how they derive data. "Journalists are not doing enough to understand where the data's coming from," he says.

May says journalists need to make sure they understand the methodologies used to compile data, just as they would ask about margin of error or sample size when reporting on a poll. A study he authored called "The Virtual Trail" explored political journalism on the Internet. Here are three of the sites journalists interviewed for the study found most helpful:

Center for Responsive Politics
The GW study found this Web site was "by far the most popular destination" when journalists were asked to name their favorite sites. The nonprofit, nonpartisan group tracks money in politics free of charge.

Federal Election Commission
The site is "colorful, clean and easy-to-use," the study found. It has "fewer options for slicing and dicing the money" than other sites specializing in campaign finance data but gives reporters access to hardcopy filings of campaign finance reports, "allowing corroboration of data." The site also has the most current information.
This site cleans up raw FEC data and "posts it in a variety of ways, allowing users to track and analyze money in politics." Some databases require a paid subscription.

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