Judith Smelser's blog about journalism, public media, and ethics

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The recent flap over a WNET/PBS NewsHour Weekend series on government pensions is the latest reminder of how sticky grant-funded reporting can be.  The series, called Pension Peril, brought up obvious conflict of interest problems, since it was funded by The Arnold Foundation, which, among other things, advocates for pension reform.   Instead of waiting for another scandal, we should wrestle with these questions now and proactively reflect these issues in our policies on ethics and conflicts of interest.

A Different Kind of Firewall?

The problem raised here goes deeper than the usual discussion of editorial independence and the firewall between funders and journalists.

I don’t doubt the assertion from WNET’s Stephen Segaller that “the Arnold Foundation did not direct or prescribe our reporting [on the Pension Peril series], never attempted to do so.” I’m sure nobody from the Arnold Foundation sat in on editorial meetings about the series or called any shots about which specific events or case studies should be covered.

The problem is that the funder was part of the editorial decision-making process before any actual boots-on-the-ground reporting began.  As with any directed grant funding, even if the reporters and editors aren’t told specifically what to cover, the choice of topic has been determined for them.  Once the funding for a topic-specific grant has been secured, the topic in question is guaranteed to be covered, no matter what.

This discussion may be have more than a few of us shifting uncomfortably in our seats.  Grant-funded reporting is an important piece of the public media funding pie.  Here are just a few recent examples:

Plus, there are scores of grant-funded beat reporters and desks at public stations and nonprofit news organizations around the country.

None of this is necessarily bad, but we do need to take a hard look at how we can make sure our reliance on foundations never taints our journalistic independence.  To that end, here are:

Three Keys to Ethical Grant-Funded Reporting

1. Have a strategic plan for growing reporting capacity.

It’s hard to say “no” when a foundation offers to fund a series on a certain topic, or a beat reporter, or a whole team of reporters.  That moment, when the shiny gold coins are dangling in front of you, is not the best time to be making clear-headed decisions about your coverage priorities.  Who cares if you really think Sustainable Agriculture or Obesity or Underwater Basket-weaving  is the most important topic for your audience and your community?  There’s money on the table, and you really need that extra capacity, so you grab it!

To avoid that knee-jerk reaction, news managers, sit down with your news staffs now and decide what beats or “verticals” you’d like to add or expand.  Think about what series or special projects you’d like to produce, should funding become available.  This will accomplish several important things:

  • It will keep the editorial decision making where it should be – in the hands of journalists.

  • It will give the development folks in your organization something specific to fundraise around.

  • When those narrow, agenda-driven grant offers come in, your leaders and development folks can point to the news department’s priority list and say, “I’m sorry, underwater basket-weaving is not one of our news priorities right now, but if you’re interested in funding general arts and culture reporting, let’s talk!”

My former employer, Colorado Public Radio, recently put this type of plan into action. Leaders there developed a vision for seven new topic-focused “bureaus” (some people might call them “desks”), and the station is now actively fundraising for them.  Last year, CPR got funding for the first one, a three-person multi-media arts bureau, now fully up and running.

2. Grant-funded coverage areas should be broadly defined.

In an ideal world, grants to news operations would fund  unrestricted expansions of journalistic capacity, and all decisions about how to spend the money would be in the hands of journalists.  As all skeptical journalists know, however, we don’t live in an ideal world.  Most donors want to direct their money towards some specific type of coverage.

We don’t have to say “no” to restricted grants altogether, but we do have to make sure the funded coverage is defined as broadly as possible, because the narrower the focus, the closer you get to the funder’s agenda.

  • A grant for “health coverage” might be ok, but not a grant for reporting on “integrative medicine.”

  • “Education coverage” is pretty safe, but not something as specific as “access to higher education.”

  • “Transportation” might be ok, but “public transportation” might be straying into questionable territory.

Of course, there’s a lot of gray and a lot of subjectivity in this conversation.  How narrow is too narrow?  Is “Entrepreneurship” too narrow?  Does it need to be expanded to “Business” or even “Business and Economy” to be sufficiently broad?   I certainly don’t claim to have all the answers, but I think it’s important to continue to ask these types of questions.

3. Balance beats with general assignment reporting capacity.

GA reporters are the utility players of our business.  It’s critical to have enough of them to effectively cover news that doesn’t fall under the “beats” that are assigned to other reporters.  But let’s face it: funders just don’t think GA reporting is sexy.  It’s usually not enough for them to know they’re helping a news outlet add staff who can go anywhere and cover any story – again, they want a specific beat to hang their hats on.  It’s frustrating, but hey, it’s their money, and they can spend it as they like.

Our job as journalistic organizations is to make sure we commit to funding general assignment capacity, one way or the other.  Otherwise, we’ll end up in a situation where we might be able to provide in-depth, ongoing coverage of one or two topics, but we’re unable to tell our audience about the most pressing stories of the day.

The End … and a Beginning?

There are no easy answers to these questions, but we do need to bring the questions themselves into the open.  We need engage our fellow journalists in this discussion, as well as our colleagues in development.

And now, because this is my blog, I get to close with my pie-in-the-sky solution and a call-out to all the billionaires out there looking for a cause to support:

Let there be more foundations that support Good Journalism – not coverage of one issue or another – just Good Journalism.  And, crucially, let the journalists decide what that means.

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