Can donor-funded newsrooms be truly independent?

Around the world, media outlets are taking millions of dollars from private donors and foundations in order to pay for news. The Mail & Guardian in South Africa receives grants from the Gates Foundation to cover health, and Gates funds development news at The Guardian in the UK. In Latin America, Plaza Publica (in Guatemala) and Ojo Publico (Peru) accept donor money to cover news in the public interest.

These outlets do fine reporting and would not be able to do their work without the generosity of private donors. And the relationship is not a complicated one for donors, who see themselves as on the same team as their media partners. “Journalists and advocates are not that different. Both have a responsibility to not just give information to their audience but to provide a public service, whether it is to inform citizens to make thoughtful choices or making them aware of issues that are important to them,” says Miguel Castro, senior program officer, Global Media Partnerships at the Gates Foundation.

But in a world where news credibility has become a burning issue and government leaders in Hungary, Turkey, Venezuela, and the US (among others) have gone on the attack against journalism, the question of funding sources and the effect they have on media independence is an important one. Just as we look at the influence of advertisers on newsroom independence, we also need to consider the new donors who give funding tied to coverage of specific issues and so determine the kinds of beats that get covered. Coverage of health, education, and development and even government accountability is happening in many countries largely because foundations are paying for it.

 

Why should we care? By using journalism to promote coverage of health or governance or corruption or elections or criminal justice, donors are making decisions about what problems the public should know about and even pressure governments to fix. That involvement in agenda-setting and public policy affects everyone, and so it matters that donors and journalists work together.

“Donors are increasingly involved in trying to shape editorial content,” says Leon Willems, director of policy and programs at Free Press Unlimited, an organization based in Amsterdam that works to improve the climate for and quality of journalism around the world. “I understand that donors want to specifically contribute to certain topics that they think are in need of support. But as a journalist, I think this is a scary tendency that infringes on media’s independence and in (our) mind the independence is crucial for public trust. Donors have to be cautious not to be too interventionist.”

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Moreover, the kinds of outlets now receiving donor funds don’t have many of the traditional structures that media outlets had in the past to safeguard editorial independence. The old days of the advertising sales department being on a different floor or in a different building in the newsroom are long gone. The new startups are often small and the people who do the fundraising are often the same people who commission, edit, and write the stories.

At the Center for International Media Assistance, we wanted to explore the new relationships between donors and journalists in order to try and understand what is happening around the world.

We spoke with funders, journalists and “intermediary organizations” that receive donor funding and then use it to promote media development whether by giving grants, organizing trainings, or doing other work. Our report “Same Beds, Different Dreams: Charitable Foundations and Newsroom Independence in the Global South” launches today.

Our findings include:

  • There is a rich and diverse amount of funding for both media development and news production, with little coordination between donors. There seems to be no universally agreed-upon standards of behavior or processes, although the overwhelming majority of the people we surveyed believe it would be a good idea if there were.
  • Donor funding raises questions of newsroom independence and how to balance it with donor money.
  • There are very different ideas as to what constitutes independence, where the line is, and how often the line is breached.
  • Donor involvement takes the form of guidelines as to what topics should be covered, as well as suggestions for story ideas, 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 to 20 years ago.
  • There is widespread support for the idea of voluntary codes of conduct and universal practices.
  • Grantees say they welcome less onerous paperwork and clearer guidelines as to what donors would like to fund.

If we want to protect newsroom independence from donors who make news decisions then there will need to be structural barriers in place–new walls to replace the old ones between the news side and business side. However, it will probably have to be the donors that set up such mechanisms because they are bigger and have the capability to do so. In the report we include a number of best practices from around the world and a look at other institutions that take donor funds but try to 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 mechanisms 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.

Funding quality journalism and giving reporters the resources to carry out important work is critical. Many of the publications that receive donor funds uncover important stories overlooked by mainstream publications, and many wouldn’t exist without foundations. But 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 influences news coverage. Best practices may help to make the model of donor funding media better for both sides and help protect independent media.

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Anya Schiffrin is the director of the Technology, Media and Communications specialization at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. She is on the advisory board of the Open Society Foundation’s Program on Independent Journalism and on the Global Board of the Open Society Foundation.