A Marriage of Convenience – Looking at the new Donor-Journalism Relationship

Photo credit: "Newsroom" by Shu Learning Services is licensed under Creative Commons.

By Anya Schiffrin

The influence that advertisers and owners have on the editorial line has been well documented, but what happens when the funder is a well-meaning foundation that is on a mission to change the world? Indeed, in recent years we’ve seen an uptick in alternative funding scenarios for journalism that include private foundations directly funding media outlets and individual journalists. For instance, the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation has provided media outlets funding for coverage of malaria, which is a part of its larger effort to eradicate the disease. At first glance, this relationship seems to make sense: non-profit organizations and many journalists ostensibly work in support of the greater good. However, might it be creating new, unexamined conflicts of interest that jeopardize media’s independence?

In 2015, along with a team of graduate researchers at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs I began studying donor-journalist relationships. As part of the study, we carried out more than 70 interviews with both journalists and funders in 15 countries around the world. We also looked at journalistic best practices. CIMA will publish the complete report later this fall, but as conversation intensifies about the need for codes of conduct for journalists and donors I wanted to share some of our early findings.

What’s clear is that the old barrier in media outlets between the news side and the business side has disappeared in many places and is not coming back. Many of the digital startups that rely on foundation funding are run by people who are doing the fundraising as well as working as journalists. They are inevitably talking to donors about what kind of content donors want to see published.

Other key findings:

  • There is a rich and diverse amount of funding for both media development and news production, with little coordination between donors. Nor do there seem to be universally-agreed upon standards of behavior or processes, although the overwhelming majority of the people we surveyed support the idea of voluntary codes of conduct.
  • There are very different ideas as to what constitutes media “independence”, where the line is, and how often the line is breached. Nor are there uniform standards as to disclosure and transparency.
  • Donor involvement includes set guidelines as to what topics should be covered, suggestions for story ideas, tips for sources that should be included or omitted, and follow-up to see what kind of impact the coverage had.
  • There is a sense from veterans in the media development field that there is more donor involvement with content than, say, 10-20 years ago.

If we want to protect newsroom independence from donors who make editorial decisions new structural barriers need to be put in place – new walls to replace the old wall between the news side and business side that has come crumbling down. However, it will probably have to be the donors that set up such mechanisms because they are bigger, have more influence, and thus have the capability to do so. Today’s startups are often staffed by a couple of people who are doing fundraising as well as writing and commissioning stories and it’s not realistic to expect these small outlets to erect big walls and structures.

There are a number of ways media outlets can use classic, “arms’ length” funding practices in order to preserve their independence. Our report includes a number of best practices from around the world as well as a look at other institutions that take donor funds but remain true to their core mission:

  • Universities seek unrestricted funds that they can spend as they see fit.
  • The World Bank puts money into trusts, which have their own mechanism for spending.
  • Some organizations use blind juries of journalists to make decisions as to which journalists get grants, thus insulating the journalist from the preferences of the donors.
  • Organizations also sometimes use third parties, which we call intermediary organizations, to allocate grants.

Many donor-funded publications uncover important stories overlooked by mainstream outlets. However, as donor-media relationships increase, and with it editorial influence by foundations, it’s crucial to have a thorough understanding of how this financial model affects what information societies receive.

Anya Schiffrin is the Director of the Media and Technology Program at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. 

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