The American Press Institute—an educational nonprofit that helps advance news media in the digital age—released a report last month that explores the ethical terrain of nonprofit journalism.  “The ethics of taking grants from foundations and gifts from donors to produce news is still evolving and not without controversy,” the report reads.

Titled Charting New Ground: The Ethical Terrain of Nonprofit Journalism, the report was itself commissioned by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It was sparked by a 2014 conversation among journalists and grantmakers at an annual gathering of journalism funders facilitated by Media Impact Funders at the Washington offices of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.
For traditional commercial media outlets, the Society of Professional Journalists is a leading voice on the subject of editorial standards and ethics, and many outlets abide by SPJ’s Code of Ethics. In it are guiding principles on minimizing harm, being accountable and acting independently. But nonprofit news organizations—whose ethical issues include grant transparency and funding for specific coverage areas—do not have a set of universally accepted guidelines that can help them make decisions about such quandaries.
Many argue that the institution of such a code is way overdue, especially with more nonprofit news outlets picking up the slack left by failing and/or shrinking commercial ones.
“There’s nothing more comforting, for somebody who runs one of these organizations, than being able to tell a prospective funder that there is an inviolable industry-wide rule against, for example, promising how a story will turn out,” wrote Nicolas Lemann, former dean of Columbia’s journalism school, for The New Yorker back in January.
For its report, the API surveyed 94 nonprofit media organizations, 63 funders and 146 commercial organizations, and explored a range of funding and ethical issues: the kinds of grants being made; the nature of communication between funders and grantees; the existence of written guidelines and more.
The report was released April 20 at Columbia’s journalism school at an event attended by representatives of some of the most important foundations and media organizations engaged in this space—including the Ford, MacArthur, Open Society and Rita Allen Foundations—along with media organizations such as ProPublica and the Marshall Project, among others. There was a lively discussion about the potential for conflicts of interest among funders and media makers, with all sides agreeing that funders need to appreciate the independence and integrity of the process or run the risk of damaging the product and undercutting their investment.
The conversation also continued on Twitter among journalism thought leaders:
I think #APInonprofitethics will be really important re future of journalism.
— craignewmark (@craignewmark) April 20, 2016
Interesting qu’s facing nonprofit journalism publishers as they grow up and institutionalize (new, via @AmPress).
— Jesse Holcomb (@JesseHolcomb) April 25, 2016
One key finding is that 52% of funders “make grants on issues about which they are also trying to change policy or public behavior. Only a few outlets … have policies forbidding taking such grants.” In addition, 59% of funders are underwriting specific stories.
Several prominent voices in journalism funding have offered their own ideas in a series of associated essays.
One of these is from Kathy Im, the director of journalism & media for the MacArthur Foundation and also a member of our board of directors. Along with co-author Peter Slevin, professor at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, Im underscores the need for funders to make unrestricted grants—that is, funding not tied to any particular cause or reporting initiative. Providing funds with flexibility, they write, “allows professional journalists to pursue promising investigative leads not approved in advance by funders or tied to a funder’s pet issue.”
Speaking on a panel at the report’s launch event, Im noted that the MacArthur Foundation is in the process of making a dozen long-term general operating grants to media organizations this year.
At the same time, many other funders make grants in support of journalism out of program budgets focused on particular issues and subjects. It may be unrealistic to expect all of them to shift toward unrestricted support for newsgathering activities, without regard to which topics might be covered by grant recipients.
Also participating at the Columbia event, Keesha Gaskins, director for Democratic Practice within the United States at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, indicated that her foundation has recently shifted from providing general support for journalism organizations to providing support for journalism that reflects programmatic interests of the foundation. But she argued that it is nevertheless possible to do so ethically.
One possible solution, suggested Im, would be for programmatic funders to continue to make project support grants, but to add some general operating resources in their grants to give journalists wider latitude to cover issues independent of funder guidance.
Additional perspectives on these questions are also available from:

  • Richard Tofel, president of ProPublica
  • Alan Rusbridger, former editor-in-chief of The Guardian
  • Joe Bergantino, co-founder and executive director of the New England Center for Investigative Reporting (NECIR)
  • Daniel Green, director for program advocacy and communications the Gates Foundation

The API has plans to follow up its report with recommendations for ethical guidelines. Stay tuned for more coverage from us on this topic.

About the Author
Nina Sachdev

Nina Sachdev

Director of Communications

Nina Sachdev brings more than 20 years of journalism, news editing and marketing experience to her role as a communications director for Media Impact Funders (MIF). Since joining MIF in 2016, Nina has been leading efforts to showcase the power of media, journalism and storytelling to the philanthropic community. Through strategic communications, member engagement strategies and high-profile speaking events, Nina works to educate and inspire funders to make more strategic decisions about their media funding. Nina brings with her from her journalism days a special focus on sexual assault and reproductive health, and is a tireless advocate for the importance of quality, impactful media and journalism around these topics.
Nina cut her teeth in journalism at The Dallas Morning News, where—as an intern on the copy desk—she was tasked with editing the obituaries of famous people who hadn’t yet died. Since then, Nina has worked at The Santa Rosa Press Democrat, The Philadelphia Daily News and The Philadelphia Weekly in almost every editorial capacity imaginable, including senior editor, A1 editor (when that used to be a thing) and slot (does anyone remember that being a thing?).
Nina is the creator and editor of the award-winning The Survivors Project: Telling the Truth About Life After Sexual Abuse, which exposes the reality of healing from the effects of sexual abuse. Nina holds an M.A. in journalism from Temple University. She lives in Philadelphia with her family.