Last year Poynter took a grant from the Charles C. Koch Foundation to pilot a program on three college campuses that encouraged the student press to use journalism to navigate divisive issues. This year, we’re taking a larger grant and expanding the program to nine campuses.
We pick the schools. We set the curriculum. We hire the faculty. We occasionally update our contacts at the Koch Foundation about our progress. I can personally attest that over the last year our contacts at the Koch Foundation gave us complete independence to run the program the way we saw fit.
With Koch money we helped the student journalists at Howard University’s The Hilltop newspaper cover the longest student occupation in the college’s history, hold their own university officials accountable and host bl(activism), a conference on black activism.
At Virginia Tech, we guided the Collegiate Times newspaper through a financial and existential crisis and helped them host a student-driven political debate that addressed issues of racially-motivated hate speech and sexual assault.
Through it all, Poynter Adjunct Faculty Elissa Yancey was mentoring tomorrow’s journalists. Her goal, which I share, is to emphasize that holding the powerful accountable and facilitating civil dialogue are the guiding lights of journalism in service of democracy.
After we took the first grant, I did a series of interviews with journalists from a variety of publications including CJR and the Washington Post, explaining that we have a robust process, described in The Poynter Institute Code of Ethics.
Those who criticized us cited the past relationship Koch Industries has had with journalists who challenge them, their political advocacy group Americans for Prosperity, or their role in the Citizens United Supreme Court Decision. We’ve heard parallel criticisms about other organizations and individuals who contribute to Poynter.
As an ethics specialist, I’m confident that we will uphold journalism values if we engage in a process of vetting projects, rather than sorting potential donors along a continuum of acceptable and unacceptable, then drawing a line.
I’m excited about working with student media on nine new campuses. I’m confident we’ll help student journalists make their communities better.
Editor's note: This story was updated to describe Americans for Prosperity as an advocacy group, not a political action committee.