Ethics for the Investigators

A new report seeks standards for nonprofit newsrooms

Today, the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Journalism Ethics, in conjunction with the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (a nonprofit news organization) and the Knight Chair in Investigative Reporting at the University of Illinois (endowed the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, a major funder of journalism innovation, and a supporter of CJR) released a report that attempts to identify best practices for combining all of those things—ethics, nonprofit investigative journalism, and outside funders. Update, 1:50 p.m.: The report is now available online here (PDF). A press release is here.

As journalism’s economic base has been irrevocably altered, so have the relationships between journalists, funders, and audiences. While it remains to be seen just how large a share of the media environment nonprofits and their supporters will eventually account for, they are clearly playing an increasing role—one that beleaguered journalists are grateful for. But one of the things that hasn’t changed is a truism noted at a January roundtable discussion with nonprofit newsroom leaders, which was the foundation for today’s report: “All funding bugs journalists.” All the more reason, then, to try to create standards for this new frontier in journalism.

The full report, a working document titled “Ethics for the New Investigative Newsroom,” will be discussed at a conference hosted by the Center for Journalism Ethics on Friday in Madison. Here are some of the highlights:

  • • Nonprofit journalists should turn their investigative instincts on their donors and themselves. By vetting funders and striving to be as transparent as possible about where the money comes from, news organizations can mitigate the sort of accusations of conflicts of interest they would aim to expose in any other arena. As the report says, “It is better to reveal one’s funding sources and be criticized, than not to reveal and have the information surface elsewhere.”

  • • Following up on the concept that is better to report on yourself than to have others do it for you, Toronto Star deputy investigations editor Robert Cribb predicted that the ethics of nonprofit newsrooms will come under heightened scrutiny from mainstream news organizations as nonprofits grow and compete with legacy media. “These questions are going to be not just a matter of debate at a roundtable at a university, but these are going to be on the front pages of newspapers.”

  • • On the issue of transparency, it’s not enough to just list funders’ names. Nonprofits should make their funding information prominent and easily accessible, said Charles Lewis, founder of the Center for Public Integrity. As Christa Westerberg, an attorney for the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, says, 501(c)(3) organizations must provide a copy of their application for nonprofit status and IRS Form 990 immediately to anyone who asks in person and within 30 days to any written request. May as well be proactive and put it out there for all to see.

  • • Nonprofits should maintain walls between journalists and donors the way for-profit papers have established walls between editorial staff and advertisers. “Working staff should, relatively speaking, be free of close interaction with funding sources,” Lewis said.

We here at the Columbia Journalism Review, a nonprofit publication that relies heavily on foundation support, have a keen interest in this topic, and we’re glad to see smart folks thinking seriously about the challenges posed by the new environment. The editorial in our upcoming May/June issue weighs in on some of the issues raised by the Wisconsin report, and adds another point, directed more at funders than at their journalistic beneficiaries:

Don’t get in this game if you are simply looking for a platform for your ideas; get in it because you believe in the centrality of independent journalism to a free society.

We hope this conversation takes hold. Please join in in comments below, and check out the full report.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the deputy investigations editor of the Toronto Star as Andy Cribb. His name is Robert Cribb.

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Alexandra Fenwick is an assistant editor at CJR.