Buenos Aires governor favors state-friendly media in advertising campaign spending

Entry type: Single project

Country/area: Argentina

Publishing organisation: LA NACION

Organisation size: Big

Publication date: 2022-10-09

Language: Spanish

Authors: José Crettaz, journalist
Ricardo Brom, engineer and data scientist
Gabriela Bouret, data scientist

Project description:

The money that government gives to media in Argentina is largely undisclosed. We analyzed 139 documents in closed PDF format with 23,732 records containing information on the amounts allocated to official publicity in the province of Buenos Aires. For the first time that the public has been able to access details of the amounts disbursed. Between February and August 2022, 8,526 million pesos were disbursed among more than 1,000 media outlets, production companies, marketers and communicators. After manual classification, it was discovered that among those who benefited the most were journalistic companies with editorial guidelines that favored the current government.

Impact reached:

Despite this data being of great public interest, it remained hidden from the public. This is unprecedented information; it is the first time in history that a media outlet has had access to this information from the province of Buenos Aires, which had been denied via the press and FOIA requests on previous occasions. The impact of the project stretched beyond the scandalous amounts, which exceeded 8,500 million pesos, and the discretionality in the selection of companies. Other competing print, radio, and television media outlets quickly spread the news, not only republishing the article but also highlighting the findings and meticulous work carried out by the journalists of LA NACION.

Within the newspaper, the article generated a lot of interest: the average reading time of the readers was more than 3 minutes, which far exceeded the average reading time of articles in LA NACION.

Techniques/technologies used:

Our team used several data structuring, normalization and analysis techniques for the preparation of this research. At the beginning of the process, a scraping of the regulations of the province was carried out with C# — these regulations were found on the site of the Normative and Documentary Information System of Buenos Aires. Each of them was analyzed using regular expressions, and then an optical character recognition (OCR) was applied to transform the PDF tables into an open format. The information was then stored in a SQL database.

The association of each particular outlet to its corresponding media group was done manually in spreadsheets, which was based on the journalist’s knowledge and know-how and confirmed by official sources. This allowed us to improve and enrich our database. This information will also serve as raw material for future research.

We utilized a constant workflow that allowed continuous feedback: the information stored in SQL was transferred automatically to spreadsheets, which was then transferred to Looker Studio, allowing us to consult, check and modify the information processed so far in a user-friendly way. At the same time, this flow facilitated the collaboration of the work of different disciplines (journalists + data scientists).

Finally, we created an XMind relationship map to identify the existing relationships between media outlets, their corresponding media groups, their owners and associated companies.

Context about the project:

Official publicity is any form of communication, advertisement or institutional campaign by the State that appears in public and private media outlets of the country of any kind: TV, newspapers, radios, internet, cinema and public roads. This issue is very obscure in Argentina and the government often allocates money to outlets in a way that tends to be susceptible to the government’s discretion. That is to say, these allocations often benefit the government’s “friends.” According to the latest corruption ranking carried out annually by Transparency International, Argentina is in 96th place out of 180: in the last year it scored only 38 points out of a possible 100 and dropped 18 positions from its previous ranking.

Access to official publicity data has historically been complex, but it is especially difficult in the case of the province of Buenos Aires. Despite having a FOIA request law at the national and provincial level, it is difficult to access disaggregated, reliable and high-quality information. And in most cases, there is usually no response from the ministry in charge.

Why do we care about the investment in official advertising by Buenos Aires? The province of Buenos Aires is one of the most important and populated districts in Argentina and the one with the largest budget. It is home to 38.94% of the country’s population, according to the last census.

The province of Buenos Aires has been historically governed by the Peronist party which, in the last 15 years, played a role in important conflicts with the media. Since 2019 the province has been governed by Axel Kicillof, a Peronist politician. It should be noted, however, that when the opposing political party held power over the province, it still failed to make this information public.

The information needed to prepare this research was found by scouring documents, regulations and appendices located within numerous isolated links that were published on the official website but difficult to access. From the compilation of each regulation it was possible to reconstruct the whole story: a web of disbursements and payments to the media, where the size of each disbursement correlated not with the size of its audience but with the extent to which a media outlet favored the current government.

The investigation required abundant work with data in its original, disorganized form: from its transformation, to its structuring, normalization, enrichment and analysis.

What can other journalists learn from this project?

On one hand, the main lessons that can be learned from this project involve interdisciplinary teamwork and resilience. After many attempts to acquire the necessary data to produce this article, we didn’t give up and finally succeeded.

On the other hand, we believe it is important to have trust in and find new ways in which technology can help journalism investigate and unmask corruption and tell compelling stories. There exists some technological tool that can be applied to data in any stage of what we call the “Data Life Cycle” — from the raw data to the analysis platform — that enables investigative opportunities. We integrated the work on different platforms of two major data processing technologies: Microsoft (C#, Power BI and SQL Server) and Google (Spreadsheet, Looker Studio).

For this research we managed to create a workflow where everyone had their assigned tasks and we were able to collaborate seamlessly throughout the process. The manual tasks that each member performed triggered other automatic tasks that fed back into the larger investigation.

Above all, we emphasized teamwork: in order to achieve deeper and higher quality productions, it was necessary to abandon individualism and foster collaboration between different roles within the teams (with data, specific knowledge of the topic, and visualizations).

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