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SESSION: Backgrounding candidates

Jack Gillum, The Associated Press

  • Follow the money. How has a candidate built his or her wealth? Has a candidate carried lots of debt? Campaign contributions from companies he/she regulates? Perosal travel, family reimbursements from campaign or state payroll.
  • Potential illegal behavior: Cutting corners or land development, illegal nannies, failure to pay taxes?
  • Deb problems: Any state or federal lawsuits against candidate/spouse to collect debts? Any bankruptcy filings or tax liens? (Nexis)
  • Legal troubles: Signs of any civil lawsuits? Criminal complaints? Check PACER. Any disciplinary behavior by professional standards boards, like a congressional ethics panel or the FEC? Sexual harassment complaints?
  • Don’t assume they are old news to readers; they’re not anymore.
  • Other stones to turn over: Lies – fibbing about background, such as work experience, academic credentials or lobbying history.
  • Key documents to seek: Financial disclosure reports, misdemeanor/felony records (Nexis/PACER), Land-tax records of home or business properties. Campaign finance reports; writing for o-ed pages, think tanks or law journals; archives of phone calls, and appointment records.
  • General tips: Have a plan for backgrounding a candidate. Enlist help from others in the newsroom to do regular brain dumps. Have a good cop reporter and a bad cop reporter; everything old is new again: write with sweep and context. “Political stories are needlessly contentious nowadays, so write with authority and show readers why you’re examining a candidate.”
  • MicrosoftOneNote for note-taking and sharing is great. It is Microsoft Word with a binder and tabs.

Matthew Mosk, ABC News producer

He works with the Brian Ross investigative unit.

  • “Reporters are all that stands between an informed public and somebody getting elected who shouldn’t have.” Don’t just sit at your desk and rely on the computer, and don’t rely too heavily on FOIA. He reads a letter received by ABC dated June 6, 2012 about a request they made to the Interior Department in 2007. They didn’t find anything responsive. -- campaign disclosure forms online.

ABC’s review of FEC documents allowed them to see companies offshore connected with Bain Capital. He has millions of dollars in personal wealth in the Cayman Islands, according to the ABC story. They traveled to the Caymans and illustrated that they were not able to find out anything about the Bain Fund headquartered there.

Greg Borowski – PolitiFacts Wisconsin

Greg is at the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. There was a tip sheet in the back of the room.

It’s a new role for journalist to be the referee or fact checked, going beyond the he said-she said of past coverage and not helping the reader to know which one is right. It helps you get beyond that.

Look for the statements that make you wonder. If the statement makes you wonder, Huh, I wonder if that is true, those are the ones that will likely make your readers wonder as well. You have to pull back from getting caught in the play-by-play of it.


  • Pick sharp and strong statements. “I wonder if this could be true?” Satisfy the readers’ curiosity factor. Play close attention to emails or Tweets to see what people are wondering about.
  • You can’t fact check an opinion. Focus on factual statements, not on statements about the future. You can provide context to other statements.
  • Seek outside independent, non-media sources that are independent and non-partisan. They don’t have a dog in the fight. Find outside, independent sources. Be transparent about any biases they have.
  • Always link to source documents when available.
  • You are not a campaign stenographer. Go beyond what the campaign says; find independent sources and use them. But if you are going to be a referee, you have to be consistent and fair in the way you do it.
  • Beat reporters are starting to do this, because they don’t want to be called out for missing something by the data/fact-check based reporters.