Expert Commentary

Elements of “money in politics” stories

Tips and resources for stories about the role of money in politics

From Wild West sheriffs trading drinks for votes to PACs pouring on the soft money, cash has long been central to politics. This relationship only deepened in January 2011 with the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which enabled corporations to spend unlimited amounts in support of candidates — and anonymously, should they choose to do so.

Whether one feels the ruling strengthens First Amendment principles or marks the end of democracy as we know it, the court’s decision reaffirms one of the longstanding doctrines of journalism: “follow the money.” According to the New York Times, $366 million was spent on behalf of Republican and Democratic candidates during the last election cycle, one of the most expensive in history, and that was prior to Citizens United. The 2012 contest seems destined to break all records.

When working on stories about politics, here are some tips and resources compiled by Charlotte Grimes, Knight Chair in Political Reporting and Professor at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.

Look for patterns

When working on a story about a contest, candidate, or measure, the challenge is often to find out what the story really is. Answering these questions can often get you started:

  • Who are the largest contributors?
  • What kinds of contributors are there? They can be small donors (individuals) or PACS (corporations, labor unions, trade groups, different professions).
  • Is the money coming from a particular industry (pharmaceuticals, for example) or position in government (health care committee)?
  • Where is the money coming from? Is most of a candidate’s money coming from outside his or her district or state? From certain Zip codes?
  • Another option is to simply explain something. For example, what is a 527 organization and what role are they playing in our races?

The horse’s mouth

Once you’ve gotten a sense of where the political money is coming from, it’s time for some interviews. Some possible subjects include:

  • Candidates or their campaign officials.
  • Significant donors to leading candidates.
  • Political scientists, be they nationally known figures or experts in local politics.
  • Former politicians who could provide perspective on current issues.

Quirks and other things of which to be aware

Political donations often flow in unexpected ways, not just from donors to politicians, but also between officeholders. And money doesn’t necessarily come from a politician’s home turf; it could come from almost anywhere else, including internationally.

  • Politicians often have their own PACs and give money to each other. For example, Congressional leaders have “leadership” PACs to help out each other.
  • Contributions often have patterns related to a politician’s positions: Members of Congress on a committee overseeing the health care industry, for example, are more likely to get contributions from the health industry. A city council member on economic development committee might get a big share from, say, real estate developers.
  • Politicians often get money from outside their district/ home state, and this is usually related to the committees on which they serve.
  • Finally, don’t forget that without direct evidence, you cannot say that a politician’s accepting a donation constitutes his or her votes having been bought. It’s one thing to show the connections, another to draw conclusions.

Storytelling tips

“Money in politics” stories hinge on dollars and cents, but don’t forget that people — politicians, big donors, constituents — are an essential part of any compelling political tale. Other things to remember:

  • To give some life to the numbers, break them down in an illustrative way: How much did a candidate raise per day? How much is the campaign costing per day (from expenditures)?
  • Keep the writing simple. Do not overwhelm readers with figures. Remember that numbers told inside paragraphs are hard for folks to absorb. That’s why bullet lists are usually better.


Charlotte Grimes is the Knight Chair in Political Reporting and Professor at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. Tags: ethics, law, training.

Tags: elections, ethics, law, training

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