Exxon-Columbia spat highlights emerging gray area in nonprofit journalism

December 3, 2015
Pete Markham

A month after a Columbia Journalism School team published a two-part investigative project on Exxon Mobil’s checkered history with climate science in the Los Angeles Times, the energy giant sent a laundry list of complaints to Columbia University’s president. The Nov. 20 letter made an unusual argument: the stories produced by the school constituted academic research and violated the institution’s ethical policies by not fairly representing the material that the journalists referenced.

“Maybe it’s not the capital-R research usually associated with academic activity, but it was produced at a university,” Exxon Mobil spokesman Alan Jeffers adds in an interview. “I looked for an asterisk saying that this policy should not apply to the journalism school, and I couldn’t find it.”

Equating journalism with academic research is a stretch. Still, the Exxon Mobil letter tangentially sheds light on uncharted ethical territory emerging at some of the nation’s top journalism schools. 

These institutions are increasingly producing professional journalism projects, often drawing funds from outside groups to help support the work. The efforts make sense: schools already boast the machinery needed to draw together such resources, and journalists in academic environments have the time and expertise to focus on long-term projects. The programs are delivering  important works of journalism at a time when investigative reporting has been in precipitous decline at many commercial outlets.

But the practice also raises questions of balance in what subjects get reported, as well as  appropriate disclosure of the outside funders and their political leanings. In the case of Columbia, The Energy and Environmental Reporting Project is funded in part by a group of philanthropic organizations, at least one with a clear advocacy bent on the issue. The names of the funders were not listed on the two articles when they were published by the Los Angeles Times, though they were later added online.

“Journalism standards and journalism protocols and journalism ethics should regulate this work,” Columbia Journalism School Dean Steve Coll says in an interview. “It’s related to scholarship, but it’s not the same thing. I’ve been really grateful in this episode to discover the fact that Columbia can handle the fact that it has a journalism school in the middle of a much wider university, even when that journalism school comes under the kind of pressure that newsrooms come under when they report on hard subjects. This was a real test of that.”

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Both the Times and Coll have reiterated that the project’s funders had a hands-off relationship with its journalism. But the Columbia dean allows in a follow-up email that “there can be an appearance issue.”

“That is why it is important to try to develop a mix of funding, and above all to operate with true and full independence, just as newsrooms did when commercial advertisers supported investigative reporting,” Coll says. “My longer-term goal in building investigative reporting at Columbia is to either win the Powerball or find a donor who will endow our projects without any concern for what broad subject areas we choose from year to year. In the meantime, we rely on readers to trust that we follow the facts only where they lead.”

The challenges Coll describes are the same ones facing the rest of nonprofit journalism—finding funders with no specific interest in the subject matter they’re supporting.

“Nonprofit news is comparatively new (with a few notable exceptions, like NPR), and most organized funders are geared for advocacy,” Bill Keller, editor in chief of the nonprofit Marshall Project, writes in an email. “So far, this has not been an issue for us. But we’re new.” 

Philanthropic organizations often have a topical focus, and grants for subject-specific coverage inherently influence what journalism reaches the public. A number of top-shelf nonprofit publishers, such as the Center for Public Integrity and ProPublica, have begun laying out best practices in this regard. “We accept funding for beats, but not for specific stories,” says Richard Tofel, ProPublica’s president. “Maintaining this distinction seems critical to us in preserving our rule that no donors…know in advance about stories before we publish them.”

The “bulk” of ProPublica’s financing, Tofel says, comes from general support funders. The news outlet discloses all funding sources by publishing its 990 tax form online, though “many others in the field do not,” he adds. Additional disclosures are appended to stories if funders have relationships with the subject.

But most university-affiliated journalism programs are smaller and less established than such nonprofits, making it more difficult to cull funding for non-subject specific journalism. Many rely on philanthropic sources that pursue advocacy elsewhere. Such groups support programs like The UC Berkeley-11th Hour Food and Farming Journalism Fellowship and the Center for Health Journalism at the University of Southern California, among many others.

Fellows from the USC program, which trains professional journalists in health reporting, have recently published ambitious stories in partnership with organizations like NPR, regional newspapers, and well trafficked digital outlets like Quartz. The program draws funding from at least six sources, according to its website, including the California Endowment, a private foundation whose stated “mission is to expand access to affordable, quality health care.” Conservatives have criticized the foundation in the past for spreading pro-Obamacare messaging. The founding director of USC’s program was not available to comment on how she’s managed such relationships over the past decade. 

Columbia offers fellowship programs for both education reporting in general and teacher-focused journalism in particular. “Ideally,” Coll says, “you want a pool of money in which there’s no one funder who is mission critical.” The Energy and Environment Reporting Fellowship, which reported on Exxon Mobil and continues work on climate-related issues, is supported by six outside groups, in addition to the journalism school. Some of those organizations pursue advocacy work in other areas, and one—the Rockefeller Brothers Fund—has taken a particularly strong stance against fossil fuels.

“I wish foundations would just fund journalism across the board,” Coll says. “There’s really only one that does, the Knight Foundation…[For this project], I wanted a group of funders that included people familiar with investigative reporting and [who] supported investigative reporting.”

Financial backing from advocacy groups by no means precludes university programs from producing strong journalism in the public interest. Columbia’s reporting on Exxon Mobil powerfully chronicled how the energy giant, once at the forefront of climate research in the 1980s, gradually pulled back on those efforts despite growing scientific consensus to the contrary. The implication was that Exxon Mobil made a U-turn—from climate science leader to global warming skeptic—to avoid tighter regulation.

The report echoed similar findings published in September by InsideClimate News, a nonprofit energy outlet that also counts the Rockefeller Brothers Fund among its backers. After both outlets’ stories were published, New York’s attorney general last month began an investigation of whether Exxon Mobil lied about climate change to protect its bottom line.

The energy giant disputed the framing and contextualization of that narrative in its Nov. 20 letter to Columbia, in addition to attacking the Columbia journalists’ methodology and integrity. Coll’s response, delivered Tuesday just a day after Exxon Mobil’s letter went public, was both comprehensive and, on several crucial points, convincing.

But even if the reporting is sound, support from advocacy groups exposes it to conflict of interest accusations by the energy industry. The work “was funded by an anti-oil and gas activist group,” says Jeffers, the Exxon Mobil spokesman. Similar situations have led some nonprofits to turn down outside support in the past.

In addressing those complaints in his written response to Exxon Mobil, Coll mentioned the energy giant’s support of Columbia University research in other fields: “You therefore understand that the issue is not who provided funding for this or any other Columbia University project, but whether the work is done independent of the funders…The fact is that this reporting was not subject to any influence or control by the funders, the Times maintained full editorial control over all that it chose to publish, and your letter provides no information to doubt that this is so.”

Still, there is arguably some harm in not disclosing those funders to readers. While both pieces published in the Los Angeles Times in October credited the Columbia project as its partner, there was no explicit mention of the philanthropic organizations providing financial support for it. After that complaint was made public this week, the Times appended the relevant information to the work online.

“We feel that, had the readers of the LA Times been told that, they might have evaluated the journalism differently,” Exxon Mobil’s Jeffers says. “I’m guessing that more people read the stories in the paper and on the website in the month or so after publication than they did in the last few days, since the LA Times has added that disclosure.”

Coll says that the disclaimer was “adequate,” deferring to the Times on whether more details should have been added. The Times, meanwhile, maintains that it was transparent to readers.

“With each story, we have clearly noted that the reporting was done by Columbia University’s Energy and Environment Reporting Project with the Los Angeles Times,” spokeswoman Hillary Manning says in a statement to CJR. “A list of the project’s funders has been available on the project’s website…The funders have had no involvement in or influence over the stories. The stories have withstood intense scrutiny and have made a valuable contribution to the public discourse. We look forward to publishing additional stories on this important subject in partnership with the Columbia journalism team.” 

It’s questionable, though, whether very many readers would have taken the time to visit the Columbia project’s web page to examine its funders. What’s more, there was no such disclosure of funding on Columbia’s website when both stories ran, the first on Oct. 9 and the second on Oct. 23.

The investigative editor on the project, Susanne Rust, offered this explanation: “[The project] didn’t even have a website until Oct. 9 because we were operating in stealth mode,” Rust says. “When the first story came out, we realized we needed one. Probably a couple weeks later, [school administrators] said it’d be good to get the funders on there as well. They finally got up on Nov. 6.” 

Rust pegs the long delay to bureaucratic inertia. As a courtesy after publication, the school notified funders that their support would be made public. “Throughout the reporting,” Rust adds, “whenever anyone would ask how this was funded, there was full disclosure.”

Regardless, the rollout after publication was botched. While this particular misstep occurred on the most contentious of stories, the question of when and how to disclose funding for such projects appears widespread. Programs such as USC’s Center for Health Journalism and UC Berkeley’s 11th Hour Food and Farming Journalism Fellowship, for example, both prominently display funding sources on their websites. Those funding sources don’t typically make it onto article pages where such work is published, though university programs do tend to disclose their general involvement in the reporting process.

“It’s similar to the ethics that had to be managed in the days when this kind of work was supported by commercial advertising,” Coll says. “[Advertisers] were very financially important to the newspaper, but the publisher and the editor in the newsroom figured out how to build a wall between the advertisers and the work. And that’s exactly what we have to do here: We have to build a wall between the funders and the work. That’s what I’m responsible for.”

Millie Christie-Dervaux contributed reporting.

Disclosure: CJR receives funding from Rockefeller Family & Associates to support media coverage of climate change and science reporting. This is a separate group from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund that funds the school’s environmental and energy project.

David Uberti is a writer in New York. He was previously a media reporter for Gizmodo Media Group and a staff writer for CJR. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti.