Most accounts of the changing media landscape treat nonprofit digital start-ups as an unmixed blessing, taking up some of the slack left by shrinking legacy newsrooms. A new study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism offers a more critical take.
Roughly half of the 46 national and state-level sites assessed had a distinctly ideological slant. Moreover, as a group the sites are mediocre at best in transparency about where their funding comes from. And yet, transparency about funding, staff background and mission “tends to be associated with sites that also offer more balanced and diverse reporting,” the study finds.
The sample is small and some of the definitions arbitrary, in my view, making its application to the broad universe of digital news sites doubtful. In the interests of keeping the sample manageable, PEJ excluded strictly local sites, though the dividing line is gray.
MinnPost — with a state in its name — is in, Voice of San Diego is out. A few commercial sites, including Tucker Carlson’s right-leaning Daily Caller, are included for comparison’s sake. However, some of the more prominent national for-profit sites like HuffPost, other AOL sites and The Daily Kos, whose tilt would make for interesting findings, were excluded, at least in part because they were established before 2005 and thus did not meet the study’s definition of “new.”
Even with those limitations, the study offers some striking findings.
Two groups of state-level sites were found to be the most ideological. The American Independent News Network (each site has Independent in its name) was consistently left-leaning; Watchdog.org displayed advocacy of a conservative free-markets perspective. PEJ assessed slant by looking at story topics chosen and the range, if any, of views presented within stories across several topics.
The names of these website networks are not suggestive of their bias, and a reader would need to dig to find where the money comes from. In many cases, PEJ saw, the sponsoring foundations are equally cryptic about their aims and financing.
PEJ suggested that broader funding tends to produce more ideologically balanced reports. ProPublica, Texas Tribune and MinnPost all scored highly on both the balance of their content and transparency about where their funding comes from.
PEJ also observed a relationship between ideology and “productivity,” as measured by staff size, story count and the presence of a blog.
“The sites with higher levels of productivity … tended to be the least ideological in their content.” Those sites included, again, Texas Tribune, Minn Post and ProPublica (which produces more in-depth stories, and fewer of them). Though these staffs and story counts were substantially larger, the average staff size in the sample was three reporters and/or editors, who produced an average of eight new stories a week. (PEJ offers tips for people who want to assess whether sites are subtly ideological.)
I hope that PEJ or other researchers extend this study to include local sites and more of the big sites in both the nonprofit and commercial sectors.
The rise of the digital sector with many outstanding nonprofits is cause for celebration. But the landscape and sites have also grown up and they deserve some critical assessment of their practices. This one is only a start.