News from the Field

Foundations and media outlets can support a strong, independent press

Editor’s note: In early April, Vince Stehle, our executive director, moderated a panel discussion as part of the Center for Effective Philanthropy’s annual conference on how foundations and media outlets can work together to support a strong and independent press. Below is a transcript of journalist and media analyst Ellen Hume’s remarks at the panel.

By Ellen Hume | International Media Development Advisers

The theory of independent journalism is that it is one of those essential features of democracy—which depends on the educated consent of the governed. That is why we fund it, and fight for it. If people don’t know what’s actually going on—and that’s what journalists are supposed to be telling us—then they cannot responsibly exercise their options as citizens. Prof. James Hamilton of Stanford has estimated every dollar spent on investigative journalism returns $100 in social benefits.

I think everyone recognizes that is one of the worst times to be a journalist—whether you are being murdered for your work at El Norte in Mexico or whether you are simply fighting to keep your job at the Los Angeles Times. While Amazon founder Jeff Bezos at the Washington Post and others are trying to invent new business models, they haven’t hit on one yet that is replicable for smaller, local news organizations. That is why this panel is so important. Philanthropy is keeping good journalism going and helping us invent new, more sustainable approaches.

Paradoxically, this is also one of the best times to be a journalist. Journalists have so many more tools, without the old constraints of space, time and place. They are crunching data for big projects like the Panama Papers. Crowd sourcing, through Twitter, enabled David Farenthold at the Washington Post to figure out that the Trump Foundation broke the law, by paying for Donald Trump’s portrait, hanging at his private Doral country club.

Often the best journalism now is being supported by philanthropy. There are 145 nonprofit investigative journalism organizations in the Global Investigative Journalism Network, which I just finished evaluating for the Dutch Adessium foundation. When the Panama Papers stories were published last year, Iceland’s prime minister, Spain’s industry minister, and many others lost their jobs because their off-shore accounts were exposed. This journalism was made possible largely by local, national and international philanthropy, which enabled 400 journalists from 62 countries to work collaboratively on the same 4.6 terrabyte database.

Combining individual nonprofits into collaborative networks like The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists is transforming journalism. Collaboration improves the impact of their collective stories, and the safety of individual reporters –“if you kill me, 40 will take my place!”

Fortunately, it’s become trendy for philanthropy to support journalism: the Sandlers’ prototype, ProPublica, is a huge success. Now we have $100 million coming from the Omidyar Network, and NYU’s new News Integrity Initiative funded by Facebook and Craig Newmark. Is this just a flavor of the month, or a long-term relationship? What if the impact is hard to measure?

It’s fair to say that now that all eyes are on the USA—still seen as the media gold standard. We all saw the research that fake news and propaganda were more influential than mainstream media fact-checking in the last election. How do we address this?

I think you should continue funding independent media with the highest standards—while seeking innovative ways to make it prick the ideological bubbles in which most of us live.  We also need to pay attention to funding the enabling environment that makes journalism powerful.

There are four points I think philanthropies should consider when funding journalism ventures:

The danger of mission creep

There is more pressure than ever to please donors, because there is no stable business model to count on. Donors should resist the temptation to dictate story subjects and journalism outcomes. This turns the journalism into something else—propaganda. Funding journalism is not the same as funding public relations for your initiatives or your brand. That may be a wonderful thing to do, but it is not the same as building journalism as a public service. Such biases can destroy the credibility—and thus the value—of the journalism. Anya Schiffrin of Columbia university suggests establishing a code of conduct for your grant-making, including a firewall between the donor and the journalist. She notes that an intermediary organization might be appropriate in some cases—a journalism trust fund, for example, with pooled money distributed by independent arbiters. Schiffrin also observes that general funding is less biased and more valuable than earmarks, and that grantees she surveyed felt that too often, the application process was opaque, biased to insiders, and too difficult to navigate.

Political polarization

The idea that journalists are the referees of facts is alive and well among liberals, but not conservatives. The simple effort of fact-checking opinionated speech by the President and others is considered an act of opposition. Media analyst Marius Dragomir, recently of OSF, now runs the Center for Media Data and Society at Central European University in Budapest, where I am a fellow—(and which may be closed any minute by the Hungarian government). Dragomir notes that journalists’ fact-checking Trump backfired in the populist camp, making them cement their belief that the media “conspiracy” must be true. We have to figure out better how to reach across polarized divides and work more creatively to make the facts matter. Tom Rosenstiel of the American Press Institute suggests journalists must improve their game: invent new story forms that reveal the skeleton of their reporting, raise the bar of verification, and show consumers why they should trust them.

Media literacy

Of course fake news is more exciting than real news! It confirms our prejudices! If we don’t consider news literacy, media habits and critical thinking skills to be an important part of education at all levels, we are not going to sustain the enabling environment for real journalism, or democracy itself.

Measurement

The new technologies advantage content that is popular, even if it isn’t true or relevant. Advertisers –and dare I say, donors?—want their grantees to produce the most tweeted and emailed stories and Youtube views, following the Reddit model. When a journalist has to be popular under these metric pressures, she can’t do her job, which is to ask difficult and even unpopular or obscure questions, and connect embarrassing dots. You aren’t funding measurable outcomes, you are funding the flow of facts and analysis, the debates and accountability that enable democracy to work.

In conclusion, I agree with Bruce Sievers and Patrice Schneider, who wrote recently: “Protecting the independent media and the public sphere presents an epic challenge to contemporary philanthropy, but we believe that today’s philanthropic organizations are up to the task. To support their efforts, and multiply their impact, we encourage much wider discussion and resource allocation to what today may be the most vulnerable pillar of the democratic state.”

Ellen Hume is a journalist and media analyst with the International Media Development Advisers.

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