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Motivations and potential conflicts of those who fund news organizations

The foundations and nonprofit media organizations surveyed are almost equally divided on the overall motive behind the financial support for media. Less than half of funders (43 percent) and nonprofits (40 percent) both say nonprofit media funding is “journalism driven,” indicating that media is funded in order to “strengthen a free press and to educate the citizens.”

However, nearly as many funders (35 percent) said their funding of media is intended “to have an impact and advance the larger strategic agenda of the foundation.” And about the same percent of nonprofit media outlets (33 percent) agree that their funders are “agenda driven” in their support.

This notion of a divided mission is also reflected when we probed another element — whether funders make media grants in the areas where they are also doing public policy work. More than half of the foundations surveyed said they make at least some of their grants on issues in which they are trying to affect public policy.

Make such grants Percent funders
Yes 52%
No 19%
Don't know/no answer 29%

Data Source: Survey conducted 2015. Question: Does your foundation ever make grants to media on issues where you are also engaged in work such as trying to change policy or public behavior on that issue?

American Press Institute

This is an area of controversy and potential perception problems. The MacArthur Foundation’s Kathy Im and Peter Slevin write critically in their essay that some “funders are increasingly dictating how these funds can be used, pushing journalists to produce work in line with the funders’ interests.”

The issue may be more complicated by the absence of guidelines noted earlier. Two-thirds of nonprofit media outlets said they don’t have specific policies that would prohibit them from taking grants from a funder doing policy work on the same issue. Less than 1 out of 10 do have such prohibitions.

One reason is that some of the new nonprofit media outlets are themselves advocacy oriented. As the representative of a magazine wrote, “As an advocacy publication, we have no problem with this as long as the issue aligns with our mission.” Or as one digital media organization said, “We receive funding from donors who are active in the same sector we are covering.”

But even some of those who have accepted these kinds of grants have had second thoughts. One respondent said they regretted taking a grant from a funder who was too closely associated with advocacy on a similar issue. “This happened once on a project grant, and we’ve decided not to accept funds under these circumstances again.”

Nonprofit news media said they will either make those decisions on a case-by-case basis (35 percent) or do so under certain conditions (7 percent). A quarter of the nonprofit media organizations (24 percent) say this issue has never come up.

Even some of those who have accepted these kinds of grants have had second thoughts.

Some of our essayists believe it is acceptable for funders to offer, and for media to take, grants in areas where the funders are also doing policy work. It would put even more burden on nonprofit media, they argued, if that funding were off limits. But we also heard in the survey and in the essays that in those cases clear demarcations about press independence becomes even more important. One digital organization said they take pains to make the boundaries clear. “We accept such grants, with the understanding that our coverage is not constrained by the advocacy positions of the funder.”

The question may be how to establish that line with the public.

A few nonprofit news operations have turned down specific funding because the funder was such an advocate on the same issue it felt like a conflict of interest. In all, 11 percent say they had actually turned down funding or given money back to the funders, for various reasons.

The reason that survey respondents said they turned down funding or gave money back varied: some said the goals of the two organizations were too different; the collaboration was more trouble than it was worth; there was a potential conflict of interest because of the funder’s public position; or that the grant was small; or the donor had a direct interest in an ongoing investigation.

But most nonprofit media operations (60 percent) say they have never turned down specific funding or given money back.

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