An ethical quandary for nonprofit journalism — are funders calling the shots?
The American Press Institute — and an axis of the biggest journalism foundations — makes the case in a new study that the nonprofit news sector urgently needs a code of ethics for accepting story-related grants.
The report, released late Wednesday afternoon at a Columbia Journalism School event, has a pair of damning findings:
- More than half of 63 funders surveyed indicated that they make grants for coverage of issues "about which they are trying to change public policy or public behavior."
- Six of 10 among the funders surveyed also said that they have made at least one grant in the last five years to fund "particular stories, exposes or investigations — as opposed to general coverage areas."
Such transactions typically do not include any editorial review by the funders. However funders (much more than grantees) indicate that they do steer the direction of the coverage in conversations.
While there has been a superabundance of studies on emerging media issues, including many on the burgeoning nonprofit sector, this one may have some special clout.
Sponsors of the API study include the Knight Foundation — by far the biggest funder in the journalism field — and the Gates and MacArthur Foundations, huge entities with a special interest in the potential problems with journalism grants that are too prescriptive.
In addition, Nicholas Lemann, former dean of the Columbia Journalism School, wrote a short piece in The New Yorker in January, foreshadowing the code of ethics recommendation.
Like the API report, Lemann praises the rise of nonprofits like ProPublica and Texas Tribune as they have picked up the investigative slack while legacy media weakened. But Lemann noted just what is problematic for these new ventures, compared to practices in ad-supported media:
Traditional major newspaper advertisers, like department stores and auto dealers, didn’t want to have a conversation about what work the City Hall reporter would be doing before they signed a contract, because the reporter usually wasn’t going to be covering their business. But that’s exactly the kind of conversation donors to news nonprofits want to have about the reporter on campaign finance, or education reform, or environmental policy, before they decide whether the gift they’re being asked for fits their mission.
The study does not include detailed recommendations. Tom Rosenstiel, API's executive director, told me earlier this week that that more specifics will follow later.
But the study hits on the same contrast Lemann identified at the close of its opening section:
In the older advertising-driven model for news in the United States, the ethical mores were established over more than a century. A core insulating principle was variety: If a publisher had many different advertisers, the theory held, no one of them could hold great sway. Separations between advertisers and reporters were established and largely maintained.
In nonprofit news, the concept of variety is more challenging. Many nonprofits depend on a relatively small number of foundations for the bulk of their funds. And outside of public broadcasting, many of these nonprofits are fairly new, and the movement has not had a long period of time to create rules of the road.
This ethical issue has special resonance for me because my first Poynter piece in 2001 had a similar focus. Both the pool of funders and recipients was much smaller then, but the dilemma of grants subtly aligned with the agenda of funders was evident.
In a version of the study I published in Philanthropy magazine the following year, my lead identified the problem this way:
Here’s a journalistic proposition: it would be ethical for a reporter to accept a grant from the Ford Foundation for coverage of Eastern Europe. After all, Ford has a distinguished record of funding projects that promote the study of foreign affairs but does not lobby or advocate specific policies. But it would be wrong to accept a grant from General Motors to cover international trade. Even were there no editorial interference, GM’s economic interests in the matter would create a perceived conflict of interest.
Make sense? The above is taken nearly verbatim from National Public Radio’s news policy manual. And it’s indicative of the prevailing ethos—some might say doublethink—that prevails these days when foundations and media organizations collaborate to create news content.
NPR has long since rethought and updated that policy. PBS has also put great effort into codifying what sorts of grants to accept. The notion of journalism with an agenda may also now be more widely accepted than it once was (so long as there is a degree of transparency).
But cheers to API and the study's sponsors for raising the question afresh. No time like now to push for best practices — general rather than earmarked support — for both the donors and those taking the money.