August 15, 2002

By Raul Ramirez
2001 Poynter Ethics Fellow
News & Public Affairs Director, KQED-FM, San Francisco

Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of big and small public radio projects in the United States are made possible through funding from non-profit foundations each year. Millions of dollars in foundation grants pay for the making of daily radio programs, special public affairs reports, community outreach, investigative efforts, and a myriad other projects presented by national and local public radio organizations throughout the nation.

Here are a few examples:

  • In Boston, Public Radio International, the BBC World Service, and WGBH Public radio’s co-production of The World, a one-hour weekday report on global current affairs, is supported in part by a $600,000 from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

  • In Everett, Wash., a $15,000 grant from the Pew Center on Civic Journalism is supporting a joint effort by The Herald and KSER-FM public radio to create an interactive, community-based plan for developing the city’s two waterfronts.

  • At National Public Radio and at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation is helping support a polling survey project to help deepen public understanding of complex health and social policy issues.

  • In Marquette, Mich., WNMU public radio is partnering with a local health department to help children in its audience area gain access to health care and immunizations — part of the national Sound Partners program of the Benton Foundation, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Foundation backing of projects such as these is widely credited with making it possible for cash-strapped public broadcasters nationwide to launch special public service efforts. But public broadcasters are under growing scrutiny from critics who fear that journalism organizations that accept foundation grants could be at risk of gradually subordinating their editorial agendas to the goals of the funders that make possible their special projects.

In early 2001, a special edition of the Poynter Report, published by The Poynter Institute, questioned how much influence private foundations with private agendas might be gaining over the content of news media organizations, including public broadcasters.

When that report, “Behind the Scenes: How Foundations Have Quietly Seized a Role in Journalism, Commissioning Content,” was published, I took special notice. Over the past decade, ever since joining the staff of KQED Public Radio in San Francisco, I have helped draft numerous grant proposals and participated in many meetings, briefings, and discussions to help shape the resulting projects.

Few Standards for Foundation Funding

Networks and local public radio stations alike have few standards guiding how they solicit and secure foundation funding for editorial projects, or advice on how to avoid the pitfalls of apparent or actual conflicts of interest.

Non-profit foundation support constitutes a relatively small portion of public broadcasting revenues — hovering just under 6 percent of the more than $2 billion raised annually by public radio and television stations nationwide.

But the percentage of public broadcasting revenues coming from foundations has doubled in the past two decades. The bulk of the some $125 million yearly in foundation grants to public broadcasters goes for broad institutional support (upgrading equipment, increasing the reach of signals, expanding facilities, etc.) rather than for direct funding of specific editorial content.

The vast majority of the money goes to public television, and maybe one-tenth of the total goes to public radio — the subject of this discussion. But the comparatively modest amounts that support radio editorial projects can have a significant impact on coverage. At some stations, foundations provide the sole source of support for local public service, investigative or outreach projects beyond the daily broadcasting service.

Many foundations provide generous support without attaching specific editorial ties. National Public Radio has benefited from millions of dollars in support gifts for broadly based coverage in some fields from foundation giants, such as the John D. and Catherine MacArthur Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund. Six years ago, the James Irvine Foundation awarded KQED Public Radio $1 million to help launch a statewide news service. Irvine also has offered smaller grants to help establish bureaus in Sacramento and California’s Central Valley.

Some foundations offer support for general areas of coverage. The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, for instance, supports networks and local stations, including KQED, with money intended for the coverage of health issues.

Funding Makes Certain Coverage Possible

A foundation’s gift can make it possible for a station to cover a story it might otherwise ignore. It can sustain a specific program, or launch high-profile individual projects. The impact on what public broadcasting audiences get to see or hear can be significant. Several of public radio’s stalwart programs– NPR’s All Things Considered and Morning Edition, WHYY’s Fresh Air, and Public Radio International’s Marketplace among them — have benefited from the support of foundations. At many stations, non-profit foundations can be the source of generous funding for special projects and, sometimes, entire programming sequences.

At KQED Public Radio, foundation support enabled us to spotlight welfare reform, to broadcast a statewide program service carried by two dozen California public radio stations, to scrutinize campaign finance practices, to be full players in a successful civic journalism partnership, to take our daily public affairs talk show out to under-covered and underrepresented communities, and to broadcast special series on key economic and environmental issues in California’s Central Valley and on crucial health policy issues statewide.

When I talk to my public radio colleagues about the special work that foundation support makes possible, the conversation tends to follow two paths. One acknowledges that, at its best, foundation support can facilitate outstanding journalism that likely would not occur otherwise. The other leads to a concern that the attraction of more money to do more work could lead us to subordinate our journalistic agenda to the version of public service favored by those paying the extra bills.

But these conversations are usually informal, since the ethical and journalistic “ins” and “outs” of foundation funding are not frequent topics at formal public broadcasting gatherings. Most of us are left to seek ethical answers on our own.

Ironically, it’s in part the civic-minded nature of the mission of most non-profit foundations that can weaken vigilance by editorial leaders and watchdogs.

By and large, most foundations that routinely support public broadcasting walk on the side of the same gods many journalists honor: They care about children, the democratic process. They believe that more, deeper, and better coverage of important topics is good. They want to improve our communities, comfort the afflicted and keep a watchful eye on the powerful.

In many instances, their missions parallel the altruistic and professional goals of public broadcasters. When dealing with such potential partners, broadcasters might tend to be less vigilant of the independence of their editorial process than they might be when accepting funding from a major oil manufacturer or from a recalcitrant Congress.

The Edge of the Slippery Slope

Then there is the nature of the transaction. Foundations most often don’t come to us with fistfuls of dollars in exchange for favorable coverage. Instead, they invite us to file Requests for Proposals (RFPs). It’s up to those seeking support to present proposals that meet the funders’ guidelines, often by promising higher story counts on selected topics. That’s the edge of the slippery slope.

Larger stations with broad-based news formats and funding sources can find firmer footing. They can peruse the universe of foundation RFPs for opportunities to finance activities within their newsrooms’ missions and coverage plans and, in the process, free other station funds to gain broader and deeper coverage.

Many stations, though, subsist on limited budgets and rely on tiny news or public affairs staffs or on contract free-lancers. To many of them, a foundation grant can mean the difference between virtually no coverage of an issue and a special in-depth series on the topic. At times, this makes purely budgetary the decision of whether or not to cover a particular topic.

Even for larger stations, success in securing foundation funding can mean a distortion of the editorial mission. That is because foundation funding priorities do not necessarily follow the flow and ebb of news and public affairs.

In recent years, health care understandably has been a favored topic for several major foundations. Money for science coverage, sometimes channeled by industrial interests through non-profit foundations, is an evergreen nationwide. And in many parts of the country, foundation money is available for the coverage of matters related to important local economic interests.

By contrast, outside funding support is virtually non-existent for coverage of important immigration issues, the criminal justice system, or other watchdog functions.

Newsroom Physics

It’s sheer newsroom physics: The more a station relies on foundation initiatives for the cream of its editorial product, the more likely its coverage of other subjects, communities and viewpoints will be hemmed in.

By and large, foundations and fund-raising specialists have solid ethical guidelines to steer their work.

The National Society of Fund-Raising Executives, for example, encourages “standards of professional practice” that call for avoiding fiduciary, ethical, and legal conflicts of interest and prohibits finder’s fees and other questionable payments.

But such guidelines also emphasize the responsibility of the recipient organization to deliver on what it promised to do for its funding. Our editorial independence is not among their primary concerns. It can be quite the opposite: The more aggressively the funding organization pursues its goals and the more narrowly it defines them, the greater the risk of compromising our editorial independence.

In recent times, as the economy’s travails have eroded the investment endowments of most foundations, their Boards and grant officers in turn have become more aggressive in making sure their grants are investments toward their intended goals.

The fierce independence of much of North America’s public radio archipelago is part of the strength of the system, an underpinning of its diversity and local integrity. Public radio stations must abide by federal guidelines governing the length and language of underwriting credits.

Stimulating a Conversation

But the public broadcasting world has yet to agree, or even discuss seriously, suggested standards to guide stations as they try to find a way through the uncharted territory of non-profit foundation financing of their editorial product. This paper is in part an effort to stimulate just such a conversation.

In my chats with newsroom editorial leaders around the country, a handful of suggested practices were mentioned repeatedly by those most effective at protecting their editorial work from real or perceived conflicts of interest over funding sources. They include:

  • Control your editorial agenda. Set clear editorial goals and adhere to them. Stations that have an unambiguous overview of their coverage and public affairs programming plan do a stronger job of matching funding and priorities. Avoid what a colleague once called, “editing by RFP.” Rather than narrowing the scope of potential coverage, targeted editorial funding should free other resources to fulfill your overall mission.

    • Build a solid firewall and honor it. The separation between a station’s editorial responsibilities and its fund-raising functions must be clear to all involved. Adopt practices that support your policies, and make them known both to funders and to all on your staff. Many stations forbid direct contact between funders and editorial staffs, except for the highest ranking news managers. Some funders are also legitimate newsmakers and should continue to be treated as such. But coverage and programming decisions must be driven by news value, not outside funding prowess.

      • Own your beats. Funding that enables you to hire a producer to cover one narrow subject is seductive, but ethically and practically problematic. Reporters and producers should never have to wonder whether they owe their allegiance to your news organization or to a funder. If you must commit to producing a minimum number of reports on a subject area, do so without pledging that a specific reporter will do the work.

        • Stay in the room. Editorial leaders should be fully involved in any substantive discussions of potential grant applications or negotiations with foundation grant officers. This can be achieved by direct attendance at meetings or via detailed internal communication before the station signs on the dotted line.

          • Know with whom you are negotiating. Do you know the foundation’s mission? Its history in dealing with news organizations? Some foundations have broad missions that easily accommodate support for excellent reporting in a general topic area without setting unreasonable boundaries or narrow guidelines. Some are result-oriented advocacy organizations that view their grantees as segments of an overall plan. If the goal is to inform your community, you might easily reconcile it with your own goals. If the goal is to focus attention on the perceived evils of its adversaries, the funders’ goals and your responsibility to be fair and even might be incompatible.

          • Provide unambiguous disclosure. Your news and public affairs staff should know and understand the terms of any editorial commitment you make to funders. Your audience should be told who is footing the bill for specific editorial coverage.

          These practices can help shield public radio news and public affairs operations from ambiguous situations that can erode the public’s confidence.

          But the best protection will emerge when the public broadcasting family engages in an unfettered public discussion with foundations that support our work. Together, we must search for funding practices that serve the funders public service goals and protect the broadcasters’ ultimate currency of independence and credibility.

          Support high-integrity, independent journalism that serves democracy. Make a gift to Poynter today. The Poynter Institute is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, and your gift helps us make good journalism better.
          Bill Mitchell is CEO and publisher of the National Catholic Reporter. He was editor of Poynter Online from 1999 to 2009. Before joining Poynter, he…
          Bill Mitchell

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