Methodology

What is the Media Tracker?

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The Media Tracker is a searchable, online database that allows anyone to learn who owns the broadcast, cable and newspaper outlets serving any community in the United States. Using the Media Tracker and other Center for Public Integrity resources, the public can freely investigate how those owners seek to influence political decision-making in the nation's capital and in state capitals all across America.

The Media Tracker is a product of the Center's telecommunications and media project, "Well Connected." See our "Frequently Asked Questions" for more information about the project.

The Media Tracker is a compendium of more than 5 million records drawn from an array of government sources, corporate disclosure documents and the Center's own original research. Those records have been organized and compiled into a unified database that is indexed by city and ZIP code.

The Center's database team gathered records that catalog providers in the broadcast television, radio, cable, broadband and newspaper industries. Center researchers collected industry analyses and corporate disclosure documents from the Securities and Exchange Commission detailing the properties belonging to major corporations in each industry. Center staff then unified the lists of media properties under their parent owners across all of the databases.

The sources were geographically indexed using government maps and geographic imaging software. The result is that a search of any ZIP code in the country can return licensing and ownership information about the broadcast television, radio, cable and newspaper outlets serving that area. Currently, the only broadband information about a particular ZIP code is the number of providers, or a range of the number of providers, that the Federal Communications Commission says is serving an area.

Broadcast Sources

The Center's catalog of radio and television stations is drawn from the Consolidated Database System (CDBS) maintained by the FCC's Media Bureau. The FCC regulates the construction and ownership of broadcast stations under authority granted by Congress in 1934. The CDBS is tasked with recording and reporting information related to that process.

The database is updated daily and available for download. Internet users can investigate FCC records related to individual stations without downloading the entire database by using the Media Bureau's separate online queries for AM, FM and TV licenses.

The Media Tracker is based upon a complete download of those files done on June 15, 2006. After extracting all records related to currently licensed analog facilities, Center staff enhanced the data by uniting records belonging to a common owner. The FCC's records contain the name of each station's licensee. But those names are often subsidiaries of larger companies or distinct variations on a common name.

Center researchers collected a list of all stations belonging to each of the top 25 radio and television owners, according to a ranking of company revenue done by industry analysts at BIAfn. In the case of public corporations, those lists were usually drawn from the company's annual report filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. For private companies, the lists were obtained either from the company's Web site or directly from one of its officers.

All stations on those lists denoted as currently licensed by the FCC were then attributed to their respective parent companies. For cases in which the format or network affiliation of the station was available, that information was also added.

Center staff then augmented those results by using the same process to collect a list of stations belonging to radio groups that BIAfn ranked as the top 50 owners in terms of total number of radio facilities.

The geographical index for each station was created by cross-referencing FCC maps displaying each licensed tower's broadcast range with corresponding maps published by the U.S. Census Bureau charting ZIP codes and urban areas. The Media Tracker utilizes the contours of television towers published by the FCC's Wireless Telecommunications Bureau and the AM and FM tower contours published by the FCC's Office of Engineering and Technology. The index was created electronically using geographic imaging software.

Cable

The cable data published as a part of the Media Tracker is drawn from a spreadsheet published daily on the Web site of the FCC's Media Bureau. It provides a list of all cable communities currently registered in the FCC's Cable Operations and Licensing System (COALS). The Media Tracker is based upon all active cable units included in the Sept. 5, 2006 edition.

The spreadsheet also includes information about each unit's owner. However, because the FCC does not regulate the cable industry with the same rigor as it does the broadcast industry, that information is often limited. In two cases, the legal owner of a cable community is listed simply with a question mark.

The Center endeavored to unite cable communities deemed to be owned by a common parent. This was done when a site was listed as belonging to a documented subsidiary of a parent company and the FCC's recorded address for correspondence with that cable community matched an address belonging to the same parent. Subsidiary status was determined by referencing annual reports filed with the SEC and information on corporate structures documented by Hoover's Inc. Time Warner Cable provided the Center with a listing of all the cable communities it acquired as part of the breakup of Adelphia Communications Corp.

Because the FCC's cable data do not provide geographical information more precise than the county a particular unit serves, it was not possible to create a ZIP code-level index similar to what was generated for broadcast data. Instead, an index was crafted that cross-references the names of cable communities against the "names" assigned to ZIP codes by the U.S. Postal Service. In cases where both the name and the state match, the units are linked. A county-level index was also created that cross-references the county or counties of any city or ZIP code against the counties served by cable units. Media Tracker searches return both results.

Broadband

The broadband data included in the Media Tracker are as of Dec. 31, 2005. The information was collected by the FCC's Wireline Competition Bureau and published as part of its "Local Telephone Competition and Broadband Deployment" report.

While the FCC collects a list of ZIP codes and total subscriber figures for each company that reports, it only releases the total number of providers per ZIP code. This limitation prevents independent groups from scrutinizing which companies claim to service which ZIP codes.

Newspapers

The Center purchased newspaper ownership and circulation data provided by the Editor & Publisher's Annual Yearbook on Sept. 29, 2006. For cases in which its ownership information was incomplete, the Center sought to determine the paper's owner by researching corporate documents and by contacting the newspaper directly.

The Media Tracker will return information about all newspapers within 100 miles of the city or ZIP code searched. This was accomplished by using geographical mapping software to index all cities and ZIP codes within 100 miles of the central point of a ZIP code containing a newspaper's home address.

Accuracy

The Media Tracker is no stronger than its sources. Where they are flawed, it is flawed. The Center for Public Integrity sought to fully collect and faithfully report all information. But if information was recorded or reported inaccurately by a government agency or a media owner, it is likely to be inaccurate here as well. Also, any changes since the dates on which the various data were harvested will not be reflected here.

Measuring Political Influence

The Center for Public Integrity's aim was to quantify the political activities of the largest companies and organizations in the telecommunications, media and technology industries through disclosure documents related to campaign contributions, lobbying and privately sponsored travel.

Campaign Contributions

These figures represent the Center's refinement of contribution data reported to the Federal Election Commission and collected by The Center for Responsive Politics. They summarize donations of more than $200 made to federal candidates and national parties by employees and political action committees connected with the telecommunications, media and technology organizations in the period from Jan. 1, 1997 through June 30, 2006.

After acquiring a complete listing of contributions classified by CRP in its Communications/Electronics sector, Center researchers endeavored to further enhance the data by researching each organization's history and structure. This allowed for the unification of contributions made by employees or PACs connected to an organization through a subsidiary relationship and bolstered our effort to account for how corporate structures have change over time due to mergers, spinoffs and acquisitions.

The Center's guiding principle for handling the changing identities of organizations over time was this: When one company acquires another, it not only acquires properties, staff and liabilities — it also acquires accrued political influence. Therefore, when Center researchers determined that an acquisition had been made by an organization being studied, it was assessed all past political influence figures associated with its new property that fell within this project's scope.

For example, AT&T Inc. was formed out of SBC Communications' 2005 acquisition of AT&T Corp. In keeping with the Center's methodology, our report on AT&T Inc. includes past contributions made by employees and political action committees associated with AT&T's current incarnation as well as all those made previously by SBC Communications and AT&T Corp.

The converse is also true. When a company was determined to have been spun off into an independent entity, its contributions were broken away from its previous owner and assessed to the new organization.

Lobbying Spending

The Center acquired its lobbying data by downloading the filings for Jan. 1, 1998 and Oct. 19, 2006, posted at the Senate Office of Public Records. The filings were then analyzed to identify variant names common to a single organization and its subsidiaries. Researchers made every effort to ensure that all amendments and duplicate filings were identified and noted.

Organizations are obligated to report any money spent on lobbying in filings due twice each year. If the amount does not exceed $10,000, the organization can report "less than $10,000." The Center treated those filings as "$0" when calculating totals.

There are complex and varied inconsistencies in how lobbying money is reported. Specifically, some organizations appear to lump the costs of in-house lobbying activities with money they spend on outside firms into an overall total, as they are directed to do by the Senate's reporting guidelines. But, in hundreds of other cases, organizations appear to be ignoring the guidelines by reporting just their internal lobbying costs.

Since there is no way to tell based on an individual filing whether an organization is reporting its spending properly, the Center has developed a method to account for these apparent differences that results in a best estimate of the total each organization is spending on federal lobbying.

The Center examined each organization's in-house and outside lobby spending totals. Whenever the in-house amount spent by an organization exceeded the amount reported by outside lobbyists it hired, the Center designated the in-house figure as the lobbying total for that six-month period and ignored the outside amount. This was done to avoid the potential for any double counting.

Likewise, if the amount reported by outside lobbying firms hired by an organization exceeded the in-house amount, the Center chose the outside amount as the total for that period, and ignored the in-house money.

In many cases, the figures significantly understate the actual amount of money certain organizations are spending. The surest way to know what a company's full expenditures are on lobbying is to contact them directly.

When dealing with the changing identities of organizations, the Center applied the same method for lobby spending as it did for contributions.

Privately Sponsored Travel

Well Connected relies upon data the Center collected as a part of its Power Trips project, in which more than 25,000 documents were scanned, entered in a database and analyzed by researchers. The database contains the figures reported on disclosure forms for privately sponsored travel taken by members of Congress and their staffers between Jan. 1, 2000 and June 30, 2005. Due to the sometimes poor disclosure of trips, the Center found that forms were sometimes filled out wrong, not filed within the required time period or missing. There are also many amendments and duplicates filed. The Center made every effort to eliminate all errors and note all changes.

For this project, the Center is listing only the amounts spent on travel for lawmakers or their aides that filings show were solely paid for by a single telecommunications, media and technology organization. Data regarding trips co-sponsored by these organizations with any others can be viewed by searching the Power Trips database.

 

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