Political Ad Sleuth Campus Challenge

Welcome to the Political Ad Sleuth Campus Challenge!

We’re recruiting a nationwide team of political ad sleuths to visit their local TV stations, get copies of the political ad files, upload them to the Web and mine the data. This is a great election-year activity for college classes and student media organizations. Email CampusChallenge@freepress.net to get involved.

This page tells you everything you need to know about visiting your local stations. We also have links to hands-on checklists, resources and examples from other campuses. 

Start here with our Political Ad Sleuth Timeline to give you a sense of key dates this fall. And feel free to email our project coordinator at CampusChallenge@freepress.net to learn more about training opportunities.

Background on TV Stations' Political Files:

All broadcast TV stations are required to maintain political ad files that document who has purchased political ads and how much they paid for airtime. We’ve launched the Political Ad Sleuth Campus Challenge to help bring voters information they need before they vote on Nov. 6.

How to Inspect Political Ad Files:

These resources provide nuts-and-bolts info on how to inspect political files.

  • Free Press Training Video: Our video shows you how to set up a visit to your local TV station, find the files you want and get them online:
  • How to Inspect Political Files: This handy how-to guide provides step-by-step information on how to free the files from your local broadcasters.
  • File-Inspection Checklist: Ready to visit your local station? Don't forget to bring this handy checklist, which covers both public and political files.
  • Sunlight Foundation Overview Video: This video gives further context on visiting stations and uncovering crucial information in the political files:

Sample Ad-Inspection Projects:

All over the U.S., people on campuses and in communities are doing great things with the political ad datathey’ve collected from local TV stations.

  • Follow Free Press staff and others as we blog about our own inspections at local TV stations around the country.
  • Project Open Vault is a collaboration between the University of Missouri's Columbia Missourian, KBIA 91.3 FM, KOMU TV-8 and Newsy.com that gives voters a comprehensive look at state elections.
  • Journalists around the country are busy putting all of this political ad data to use. Check out our Tumblr, which tracks this great reporting.
  • Broadcast journalism students in Cleveland filmed their attempt to inspect the files at their local TV stations:

Blog Posts

  • Shedding New Light on Dark Money

    July 1, 2014
    Letting the FCC do its job means advancing the public's right to know at a time when political ad spending has run amok. Let the sun shine in.
  • Don't Believe the Spin. Dark Money Won.

    November 20, 2012

    Before Nov. 6 is written into history, we need to challenge assumptions now circulating among Washington’s pundit class.

    First, the Obama victory didn’t signal the demise of big-money politics. It didn’t spell the end of the Super PAC. And the election wasn’t a train wreck for political advertising — even after groups paid billions for spots in support of losing candidates.

  • Spanish-Language TV Ads by the Numbers

    November 7, 2012

    Free Press spent the final months of the campaign season traveling to swing states to visit TV stations that are not currently required to post their political files to the Federal Communications Commission’s new online database.

    When the FCC announced it would require broadcasters to upload data on political ad spending, it exempted all Spanish-language TV stations from posting this information until 2014.

More »

Press Releases

  • Free Press Report Examines the Absence of Political Ads on Spanish-Language TV

    November 2, 2012
    On Friday, Free Press released Missing Out: Political Ads, Spanish-Language TV and the Latino Vote, a report analyzing political ad spending in the battleground states of Colorado, Florida and New Mexico. Political ad buys have skyrocketed to record-breaking levels nationwide, and much of that money is being spent in swing states, particularly by Super PACs and other third-party groups. But in the three states studied, Free Press found that few political ads have aired on Spanish-language stations.
More »


Learn More

  • National Conference for Media Reform

    Join us in Denver on April 5–7, 2013, for the National Conference for Media Reform, the country’s largest conference devoted to media, technology and democracy issues. Sign up and we'll keep you updated as conference planning unfolds. You can read more about NCMR on the conference website.


  • Public and Political File Inspections

    TV broadcasters use the public airwaves for free in exchange for a commitment to serve and inform their communities. If you want to know what your local broadcasters are doing to meet those obligations, the best place to look is their public files.

    And the political files broadcasters are required to maintain include essential information about who is buying political ads and how much they are paying.

  • On-the-Road Political File Inspections

    Forget Kerouac: Free Press is embarking on a road trip for the ages. Our mission? To help voters make informed decisions at the polls come November.

    Back in April, the Federal Communications Commission answered the push from Free Press and other public interest groups and ruled that TV broadcasters must post their political files online. These files reveal who’s behind political ads — and how much they paid for airtime.