News from the Field

New guiding principles for funders of media

By Tim Isgitt | Managing director, Humanity United

I have a bias. I believe the service provided by responsible journalists is essential to keeping us all informed and engaged in our communities and the world around us. I am proud to play a role in supporting journalism. And in this time of immense social uncertainty, I believe the need for quality reporting, accurate storytelling and investigative journalism has never been greater.

For many years and for a variety of reasons, foundations and other funders have played an important role in supporting this essential service, whether to ensure an informed and engaged citizenry, to increase accountability, as a catalyst for social change, or to increase coverage and awareness of a particular topic or issue area. In this new era, there is little doubt that foundation funding will be critical for the quality and quantity of journalism that is needed.

At my organization, Humanity United, we are focused on bringing new solutions to persistent manmade problems such as human trafficking, mass atrocities and violent conflict. We view access to information, and the understanding and awareness that creates, as essential to combatting these problems. In places like Thailand, Nepal, Qatar, South Sudan, and even the U.S., we have supported reporting that has brought much-needed attention to the exploitation and de-humanization of people around the world.

Like us, other funders are turning to media as an effective way to raise awareness and advance the social change they seek. In turn, some media outlets, faced with shrinking revenues and an uncertain business model, are looking increasingly to foundations to fill funding gaps. The relationship this creates is unlike most other funder-grantee arrangements. It can and should be mutually beneficial, but it can also be perilous. With all best intentions, uninformed funders can unintentionally compromise the integrity of the service they are supporting by not understanding and respecting boundaries. Further, many media outlets, whose purpose should be to independently investigate and report, are now managing unrealistic expectations from funders about content control and measurement.

Finding common ground

Last year, a team from the American Press Institute (API) brought together a group of funders and media representatives to better understand and discuss this dynamic and, ultimately, to create a set of principles and guidelines to help define the appropriate relationship between funders and media organizations. I was fortunate to be part of these discussions and—though I have a background in public media, whose business model has always depended on outside funding—I learned a lot about the complexities of these relationships and the ways we funders can unintentionally encroach on the independence and integrity of the reporting we support. It was also helpful to learn about the measures other foundations have taken to protect media organizations from undue interference that can come from outside funding.

The result of these API discussions were two sets of guiding principles presented by—one for funders of nonprofit media and one for media organizations—co-developed by a group of funders and nonprofit media representatives.

Both sets of guiding principles provide a basic, but very important, framework by which both groups can better understand and relate to one another. The first set of guiding principles is offered for all funders and future funders of media to review, adopt or adapt, as appropriate by their foundation. One important concept in this guidance is the recommendation that funders should adopt and publish their guidelines to govern their organization’s transparent and ethical support of media.

In keeping with the spirit of this recommendation, and to help illuminate Humanity United’s approach and decision-making when it comes to funding media, we published our own guidelines last year. Again, these are basic but important principles that help us set expectations and articulate the nature of our partnerships and support of media.  I expect to further develop and evolve this guidance over time by inviting feedback from our partners, grantees and other media funders. My hope is that as we continue this work, we will learn more about these unique relationships so that we can become more effective funders and so the essential service that is journalism can flourish.

Tim Isgitt is a Managing Director at Humanity United and the former senior vice president for Communications and Government Affairs at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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