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Cool tools to cover the election

By Doug Haddix
Kiplinger Program director
Kiplinger Program in Public Affairs Journalism, Ohio State University

A new mobile app called Ad Hawk created a buzz this weekend during an IRE Election Watchdog Workshop at The Ohio State University. It’s an amazing new public service offered by the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation in Washington, D.C.

Here’s how it works: When you hear a campaign commercial on TV, radio or the Web, open the Ad Hawk app and press a button on a retro TV logo that says “Identify this ad.” Using a short digital footprint from the recording, the app searches the Sunlight Foundation’s database. If you get a hit, the app gives you information immediately about the sponsor, money received or spent, news reports about the group or ad, and where the ad is airing.

For example, I played a YouTube video of an ad featuring Olympic athletes talking about Mitt Romney’s role in the 2002 Salt Lake City games. Ad Hawk identified the ad’s sponsor as Restore Our Future, a super PAC supporting Romney. Ad Hawk reported that Restore Our Future has raised nearly $90 million and spent more than $82 million already. All of this in less than a minute on my cellphone. The free app is available for iPhone and Android.

Sunlight’s editorial director, Bill Allison, demonstrated Ad Hawk during the IRE workshop, which attracted nearly 40 journalists and other communicators. Presentations from several speakers are available for download online at MediaFire. Check out our slideshow from the event (photos by Beth Gianforcaro, central Ohio SPJ):

Another cool Sunlight tool is called Politwoops. This fun site captures and describes tweets that politicians shared – then quickly deleted. The tweets don’t include routine typos and corrections, Allison said.

Beyond those tools, Sunlight has expanded its projects tracking influence, legislation, lobbyists and campaign cash. Check out Sunlight’s Projects page for full descriptions.

Equally impressive is the amazing array of free services offered by the Center for Responsive Politics at its Open Secrets website. The center’s money-in-politics reporter, Russ Choma, demonstrated ways to search interest groups, PACs and campaign cash. Open Secrets has added features such as Heavy Hitters, where you can see summaries for top company and individual donors.

With the Get Local! search tool, you can search campaign contributions by state or ZIP code. When I typed in my ZIP (43065), I discovered that more than $500,000 has been donated during the 2012 campaign cycle – about 11 times as much as the average ZIP code. Tabs across the top of the search results show the top contributors and recipients of the campaign cash.

For tracking bills in Congress, including a prognosis for passage, Choma recommended the GovTrack.US site.

During the presidential campaign this fall, voters actually will experience a lot of different campaigns, according to Derek Willis of The New York Times. That’s because campaigns are mining data in creative new ways to micro-target different audiences with direct mail, email and other messages. That makes coverage more challenging for reporters. “As a newsroom, we have no idea how a lot of people are experiencing the campaign,” Willis said.

For instance, a voter who has a subscription to a hunting magazine might be targeted with direct mail and robo-calls focusing on Second Amendment gun rights, while his next-door neighbor might receive separate ads based on different demographic information.

While many reporters focus on campaign contributions, Willis likes to look carefully at spending. That can offer insight into a campaign’s tactics and strategies. Where are they actually spending money? How much is going to TV vs. direct mail? What expenses look out of the ordinary?

Willis has gathered a variety of links and resources for covering campaigns on a Pinboard page.

Other speakers at the workshop included: Darrel Rowland, public affairs editor of The Columbus Dispatch; Paul Beck, Ohio State University professor; and Megan Luther, IRE training director.

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