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.”

Donnelly currently writes for Global Health, a magazine published by the Global Health Council. The council has a three-year, $10 million grant from the Gates Foundation to “to foster policies that accelerate scale-up of cost-effective, proven health approaches and diffusion of best practices and innovation that have policy significance.” The grant was awarded in October 2008, like those won by the NewsHour and KFF. Global Health, which began publication in the winter of 2009, does not disclose Gates funding, as of this writing.

Donnelly said he didn’t know if Gates funding supported Global Health. He recently blogged the Pacific Health Summit for that publication. The invitation-only summit paid most of his airfare with the balance coming from another non-profit receiving Gates Foundation support. “I don’t know who funds the summit,” said Donnelly, other than numerous different organizations. On the summit website, the National Bureau of Asian Research (NBAR) sits atop the marquis of the four organizations behind the event, including the Gates Foundation. However, the Gates Foundation paid part or all of NBAR’s share of the Summit, $700,000. Again, the event and its coverage originate from the foundation whose role is larger than it appears.

(UPDATE: Global Health magazine appears to have changed their disclosure practices to include funding sources. The previously referenced blog entries written by John Donnelly simply stated that he “is a free-lance writer based in Washington, D.C.” Now Donnelly’s most recent blog for Global Health says: “John Donnelly is a freelance writer. His trip to Nepal was supported by the Ministerial Leadership Initiative for Global Health and the World Health Organization.”)

Is this ubiquity simply a property of global health, a consequence of a generosity both welcome and immense? Should air have to disclose that it is 21 percent oxygen?

Robert Fortner is a contributor to CJR.