By Brittany Crocker

There’s a saying in the journalism world: “News is what someone wants suppressed. Everything else is advertising.” Carrie Levine from the Center for Public Integrity said if that’s true, then we should all be writing stories about dark money.

Levine, Robert Maguire from the Center for Responsive Politics and Melissa Yeager of the Sunlight Foundation talked about dark money at a CAR Conference panel moderated by ProPublica’s T. Christian Miller.

Dark money refers to fund given to politically active nonprofits – principally 501(c)(4)s and 501(c)(6)s – which are not required to report the sources of their funding.

These groups can receive unlimited donations from corporations, individuals and unions, then turn around and use that money to contribute to super PACs and independent expenditure committees.

Politically active nonprofit filing schedules are erratic at best. Election spending for this year will not be disclosed to the IRS until November of next year. There’s no donor disclosure and no searchable database of the organizations, either.

So how can journalists possibly cover an inherently clandestine system? The speakers had a few tips.

First, Maguire said, don’t get stuck on calculating “political activity,” but think of the larger question of “private benefit.”

Maguire covered a group called Crossroads GPS, a high-roller of sorts in the political spending game. The group applied for its tax-exempt status as a social welfare group in 2010 and battled with the IRS to get it until last November.

During the back-and-forth, the IRS pointed out the “circular flow of funds” between GPS and other organizations, and hefty political spending from GPS’s grantees.

Maguire said the IRS just doesn’t have the capacity to stand up to these organizations. “The IRS didn’t force GPS to explain how the entirety of its activities didn’t provide disproportionate private benefit to a small group of people,” Maguire said in February.

Levine compared dark money reporting to a nested Matryoshka doll. She said figuring out how the money winds up in an election is like cracking open one doll at a time, looking for where the money leaves a footprint.

Levine started looking into All Votes Matter, a Pennsylvania nonprofit started in 2011. She used tax filings by nonprofit groups who spent money on elections, state lobbying filings, and existing news reports about the group’s activities at the time to pinpoint the organization’s donors. The tax filings pointed her to the Koch brothers, who contributed more than half of the total amount All Votes Matter had raised over a two-year period. The Koch brothers contributed small amounts of money to other nonprofits, who turned around and gave the funds to All Votes Matter.

Yeager said the important thing to remember is that just because something is legal, doesn’t mean you don’t have a story. Pew research says 76 percent of Americans believe money has greater influence on politics than it has in the past.

“People want to know who is influencing their government,” Yeager said.

Yeager suggested assuming your readers don’t know how the system works, who the players are, or what their magnitude of their influence is. Find ways to work with your graphics department to visually explain these concepts.

Yeager touched on another topic, “following the message,” to see who is involved.

She said social media is a good place to watch, since super PACs’ spending disclosures are not itemized and the Federal Election Committee’s guidelines on Internet expenditures are vague. A PAC might call social media “digital marketing” or digital media.”

Political ads can show up anywhere on the internet — including viral memes and even Tinder. Most social media groups have company policies that outline how they identify who sponsors an ad. Twitter uses arrows and Facebook uses a “promoted by” caption.

It’s impossible to see every political Internet advertisement that might be funded by a super PAC, so Yeager suggests asking people to send you screenshots or links to ones they come across on their own social media sites.

Once you get the ads, you can do some sleuthing via Federal Communications Commission filings. Filings will show where ads have been purchased, how much was spent, what the ad was about and who sponsored it. The quality of the filings might vary, however, because the FCC has little to no way to enforce fillings and the contracts will really only be as good as the person who filled them out.

This sounds like an exorbitant amount of effort, right? So why should reporters allocate all this time to examining political spending?

If we don’t, who will? Someone has to make the system understandable to the public, and that’s what journalism is all about. Check out this tipsheet for more information on how you can do this reporting yourself.

Brittany Crocker is a graduate student in investigative and computer assisted reporting at the Missouri School of Journalism.