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Balanced approach can work, despite perception problems

This essay is part of “Charting new ground: The ethical terrain of nonprofit journalism,” API research exploring the philanthropic funding of journalism. Read the other essays.

About a month into my new job managing media grants for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a local newspaper headline read like a warning shot across my cubicle: Does Gates Funding of Media Taint Objectivity? This question would resurface, in different forms, over my next four years in that position. And it wasn’t unique to the Gates Foundation — just about every journalism funder has had to grapple with similar questions. With news organizations still searching for a viable business model and philanthropic media funding growing, the issue has become increasingly complex.

After almost 20 years as a journalist, I entered the field of philanthropic media funding filled with questions, mostly about the relationship between publishers and their donors. I spent my first year interrogating foundation colleagues, editors, academics, and other philanthropists. I learned about the long tradition of support for independent media and the free flow of information that includes areas everything from journalism training to legal defense funds for journalists. What struck me was that the relationship between media and donors has never been easy. At times, it seemed like there were more questions than answers, such as:

  • Where do the goals of journalism and mission-driven philanthropic organizations align?
  • What is undue influence?
  • What is a productive and ethical thought partnership?
  • How do you measure impact?

These questions are at the heart of most grant negotiations. Fortunately, I have many editors to thank for helping the Gates Foundation establish mutually supportive relationships with grantees. ProPublica’s Dick Tofel, among others, helped us think about media impact and cautioned us about the outsize influence donors sometimes exert on publishers who are under financial pressure.

That’s not to say we’ve figured it all out. Not by a long shot. I think of a healthy relationship between news organizations and philanthropic donors as a Venn diagram where the desired outcomes of the parties align without damaging the credibility or integrity of either one.

Foundations tend to lay out theories of change—hypothetical models to describe how positive change can be achieved in a specific problem area. For example, for the Gates Foundation’s media funding, our theory of change includes “informed and engaged citizens” as a critical ingredient of long-term, sustainable impact. Other organizations or teams within the foundation might highlight political agenda-setting or government accountability in their theories of change. One example could be:

Build the evidence base for a solution to a social problem -> Make the solution public and inform citizens -> Engaged citizens use their voice to influence political and social agenda -> Leaders adopt evidence-based policies and provide funding in line with the agenda -> Governments are held accountable for policies and funding that deliver positive change.

It’s an oversimplification, but you get the idea.

It’s easy to see where media could fit into multiple parts of the theory. It’s harder to define the boundaries of their engagement. Whether it’s the Gates Foundation working to help people “live healthy, productive lives” or the Ford Foundation’s efforts to “reduce poverty and injustice,” the goals of private philanthropies tend to go further than those of media organizations. News organizations define their missions with masthead slogans1and words like “inform” and “engage,” but they aren’t specific about what they aim to inform their audiences about or the kinds of engagement they seek. That’s where the shaded section of the Venn diagram gets interesting—and negotiations get tricky.

Some recent trends make this challenge even trickier:

  • Journalism as a service, not just an information provider
  • The rise of mission-driven media organizations
  • Media-led campaigns
  • More data that attempts to track media impact

A fair amount has been written about these trends, so I’ll touch on them just briefly as they relate to the funding relationship.

A healthy debate is going on right now in the journalism community between those who want to protect the traditional role of journalism as a provider of news and those who want to recast journalism as a service. Jeff Jarvis has offered this formulation:

Consider journalism as a service. Content is that which fills something. Service is that which accomplishes something. To be a service, news must be concerned with outcomes rather than products.2

Many argue that the missions of journalism and philanthropic organizations are not dissimilar. The idea of journalism as a service could bring the two even closer. If journalism advocates for the community it serves (as Jarvis contends) and foundations advocate for positive change on specific problems within those same communities, there is likely genuine alignment.

In a sense, journalism has always strived to change society. That may explain why philanthropists and private foundations stepped up when investigative journalism was facing the deepest cuts. As Chuck Lewis, founder of the Center for Public Integrity, once said about the burgeoning number of privately funded media organizations, such as ProPublica: “Who would have thought, amid the newsroom devastation of the first decade of the twenty-first century, that investigative reporting would find a way to not just survive, but flourish, in an improbable, highly innovative new golden age?”3

In a sense, journalism has always strived to change society. That may explain why philanthropists and private foundations stepped up when investigative journalism was facing the deepest cuts.

The trend hasn’t stopped there. Mission-driven media outlets are on the rise. Pierre Omidyar’s $250 million investment in First Look Media and Neil Barsky’s Marshall Project are just two examples. When Bill Keller, former executive editor of the New York Times, decided to join the Marshall Project, many funders saw more clearly the potential influence of a mission-driven media investment.

Meanwhile, some media organizations are engaged in campaigns or have clear agendas of their own. The Guardian’s “Keep it in the ground” climate change campaign and its campaign to end female genital mutilation would have been unthinkable just five years ago. I would argue that CNN’s Freedom Project to end modern-day slavery falls in the same category, blurring the boundary between journalism and advocacy.

The reality is that there are few hard-and-fast rules, which can sometimes complicate the relationship between media organizations and philanthropic funders. The impact question is one where the rules are evolving constantly and the mountains of data now available are complicating matters even further. Journalists typically do not try to quantify the impact of their work. For many journalists, the mere notion of tracking impact makes them uneasy. The Gates Foundation and other funders, however, want to know if the approaches are working. We have a responsibility to make the most efficient and effective use of every philanthropic dollar. Is the media organization informing and engaging a growing audience? Or, even more difficult to measure, has the reporting effected any change in the real world?

After a few years leading the media funding team at the Gates Foundation, I began to see that our media grant-making fell along a continuum, with general operating support on one end and support for specific programmatic goals on the other. The key variable was the topics to be covered and their specificity. Some people have framed this as the distinction between development of media and media for development.

The risks are clear for any media organization whose primary currency is trust and credibility. To minimize questions and concerns about undue influence, organizations like NPR and the Seattle Times, for example, have posted statements about their funding relationship with the Gates Foundation with regard to their education coverage.

In light of these issues, our foundation adheres to three guiding principles in its media funding:

  • Transparency of our funding
  • Respect for the editorial and creative independence of our grantees
  • Respect for the editorial and creative integrity of the content (i.e., stories are covered on the basis of editorial merit, regardless of whether they reflect positively on us)

These principles have been helpful in addressing potential conflicts of interest, but they have not been enough to address perceived conflicts of interest. When media organizations name their funders, some audience members will suspect an agenda in the related content: Has the funder influenced this story? Is this an advertorial? I can’t speak for other organizations, but the Gates Foundation has no editorial input into specific stories. Nevertheless, consumers may not know that. So despite explanatory statements about the funding relationship, the challenge remains.

This works in both directions. Our principle of editorial integrity aims to ensure that our grantees make content decisions based on editorial merit, not on the funding relationship. Grantees should not feel obligated to cover a story because of the funding source, nor should they avoid it. Yet it happens. The feature editor of one grantee organization once called me to say he wouldn’t be able to do any polio stories because Bill Gates had become outspoken on the subject. It was a difficult decision, he acknowledged, but necessary to protect the organization’s credibility. In the end, the managing editor and our team decided together that the funding relationship was not constructive for either organization.

In light of these trends, I worry that philanthropic funding of media could go in a couple of undesirable directions: Funders could decide to avoid media funding entirely because critics might charge them with tainting independent media. Or, with publishers more willing to sell native advertising and sponsored content, donors could push to fund more targeted, message-aligned content that could irreparably damage the credibility of both organizations.

I believe there is a middle ground in which funding can be framed within certain respected guidelines and best practices.

I believe there is a middle ground in which funding can be framed within certain respected guidelines and best practices. Grant-making does not have to exist at the extremes – either general operating support or nothing. Some journalists still dream of a world where credible, in-depth reporting on the toughest problems can be easily sustained. Unfortunately, that paradigm is history. The market has failed some of the most important storytelling that citizens need.

In that middle ground, funding to sustain coverage of important, underreported stories is a good thing; allowing funders to dictate coverage more broadly is not. Publishers must protect their credibility by ensuring that any targeted funding they receive aligns with their own mission. Finding that balance is difficult but achievable. Our most credible news organizations and their editors do it pretty well every day.

Green is the director of Program Advocacy and Communications with the Global Policy & Advocacy division. He leads the team that focuses on advocacy and communications across all of our global initiatives to help generate the awareness, resources, partnerships, and policy changes necessary to achieve our goals. Before his current role, Dan launched and managed the foundation’s first media partnerships portfolio.

  1. From “All the news that’s fit to print” to “No FT, No Comment.”
  2. Jeff Jarvis, Geeks Bearing Gifts: Imagining New Futures for News. NY: CUNY Journalism Press, 2014.
  3. Chuck Lewis, “A Social-Network Solution: How Investigative Journalism Got Back on Its Feet.” Columbia Journalism Review, Mar-Apr 2009.

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