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Non-profit News Sites and Ethical Dilemmas Over Funding

Sites Need to Confront Ethics Issues More Aggressively, Expert Says

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Non-profit News Sites and Ethical Dilemmas Over Funding
Stephen Ward

With old economic models collapsing, non-profit investigative journalism websites funded by foundations or wealthy individuals have sprung up around the country in recent years.

They've produced some excellent work - ProPublica, one of the best-known non-profit news sites, won a Pulitzer Prize. And proponents of so-called entrepreneurial journalism have hailed such sites as models for new ways of funding news organizations.

But how do such sites maintain their editorial independence when they're being funded by groups that often have very specific missions, political and otherwise? That's what concerns journalism professor Stephen Ward, who runs the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison journalism program.

Ward says opportunities for conflicts of interest between news outlets and their financial supporters have always existed. But in the past newsrooms were usually segregated from business and advertising offices.

That wall of separation doesn't really exist in many of the new non-profit news outlets, Ward says.

"The bottom line is this: Entrepreneurial journalism reduces the distance between the journalist and the funding sources," Ward says. "So the opportunity for the donors to have undue influence on the journalists is very high."

The idea of accepting funding from a foundation sounds benevolent enough, Ward says.

But he adds: "People think just because they're being funded by a foundation it's all right, but many of these foundations have very strong political agendas. A foundation will say, 'We'll give you money to do stories in a specific area, but we won't tell you what to write.' That sounds okay but chances are the foundation is looking for stories with particular angles.

"What happens if they have to do stories that involve the donor?" Ward asks. "What are the editorial ties that will be placed on the journalists?"

Ward and his colleagues produced a report on this issue. It recommends, among other things, that non-profit news sites carefully vet all funding sources and strive for transparency in an effort to maintain editorial control.

"What needs to happen is that we write up some guidelines so these sites can try to figure out how to handle all these ethical issues coming down the road."

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