To judge from media coverage last week, a major scandal had been exposed in the handling of the H1N1 flu pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO). But nothing could be further from the truth.
However, after this debunking, KFF only reported that “the authors of the BMJ piece agreed the timeline they presented in the article was off.” (UPDATE: Last week, KFF included a sub-headline in their global health roundup “WHO Director-General Defends WHO’s Response To H1N1.”)
KFF lets hard knocks for some organizations through, but cushions blows for the Gates Foundation and sometimes ducks them entirely. The Los Angeles Times ran a series of stories in January 2007, beginning with “Dark cloud over good works of Gates Foundation.” The Times contended that the foundation’s endowment investments worked against its global health objectives:
The Gates Foundation has poured $218 million into polio and measles immunization and research worldwide, including in the Niger Delta. At the same time that the foundation is funding inoculations to protect health, The Times found, it has invested $423 million in Eni, Royal Dutch Shell, Exxon Mobil Corp., Chevron Corp. and Total of France — the companies responsible for most of the flares blanketing the delta with pollution, beyond anything permitted in the United States or Europe.
The Kaiser Daily Global Health Policy Report never mentioned the series.
KFF frequently mentions coverage of the Gates Foundation appearing in the Seattle Times. But the Times’s recent, June 15 story, “Gates Foundation gets low marks in relations with non-profits” went ignored. The foundation actually surveyed not just non-profits but all 1,544 of its grantees from a recent one-year period. There was good news, according to the foundation: “strong ratings for our work in grantees’ fields,” and “a positive impact on knowledge, policy, and practice in our strategy areas.” However, the Gates Foundation received “lower than typical ratings on many other aspects of the grantee experience,” such as communication and clarity with respect to goals and strategy.
The foundation paid out roughly $3 billion to its grantees over the timeframe examined yet the obvious potential story about the effectiveness of foundation spending received neither mention nor exploration, an omission true of all media organizations, not just the Kaiser Family Foundation. Concerns about transparency, raised by KFF in different circumstances, here go dormant.
The lens of KFF’s portal gives particular shape to reader perception of the world’s coverage of global health. KFF is also studying global health journalism in a project led by former Boston Globe global health writer and Pulitzer Prize winner John Donnelly. Donnelly left the Globe in 2008 to join Burness Communications, a media consultancy, where he is vice president and senior editor. At the same time, Donnelly became a media fellow at Kaiser Family Foundation. (I was interviewed in June by a member of Donnelly’s project.)
“Newspapers,” Donnelly said in a telephone interview, “have very strict ethical standards that assure you’re unbiased.” He characterized his past work for the Globe as “independent,” his stories involving consultation only with editors. As budget cuts swept the newspaper industry, the Globe closed its foreign bureaus, about a year before Donnelly departed. “In global health,” said Donnelly, “there are really very few of those jobs left.”
Asked about the possible influence of Gates Foundation funding on journalism, Donnelly explained in an e-mail:
I’m rarely doing much pure journalism now, so I don’t know if I can answer the question of whether Gates’ underwriting of journalism creates a conflict for journalists. I would think that journalists working on global health issues at NewsHour and NPR would be in the best position.
Donnelly seemed to defend non-disclosure of Gates Foundation funding to certain media organizations. “Indirect funding is not really seen as independent journalism,” he said by phone. “It’s seen as advocacy-based journalism.”