Many newsrooms are dependent on private donors and foundation support for their editorial work. Some wouldn’t survive without it. But does, say, a hefty grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and a mandate to cover health-related issues set up a tension for newsrooms between stories they want to cover and the stories the funders want to see covered?
The question comes up repeatedly for news organizations all over the world, but news outlets in the Global South, already operating under difficult press conditions, face a set of challenges all their own. They may be under extreme pressure or threat from the state, or exist in markets where opportunities to grow advertising or subscriber-driven revenue are small.
From 2010 to 2014, 23 percent of private grants given to support production of “journalism, news, and information” were channeled specifically into reporting on topics important to the donors themselves, according to analysis presented in a new report from the Center for International Media Assistance (Columbia Journalism Review has the original writeup). Another 27 percent indirectly influenced editorial agendas (e.g., allocation for training journalists on an issue like malaria). (That data comes from Media Impact Funders.)
Through interviews and surveys with people on both the foundation and newsroom sides, the Center for International Media Assistance found that the relationship between donors and their grantees was generally positive. But “interviews also suggested that perceptions vary markedly between the donors and media houses, and even within media houses, as to what constitutes the difference between acceptable involvement and interference.” On some occasions, donors just suggested topics for coverage; on others, they suggested story ideas or even sources.
“Donors are increasingly involved in trying to shape editorial content. From the developmental perspective I understand that donors want to specifically contribute to certain topics that they think are in need of support (gender issues, democracy building, peace promotion for example),” Leon Willems, director of Policy and Programs at Free Press Unlimited, told the report’s researchers. “But as a journalist, I think this is a scary tendency that infringes on media’s independence and in Free Press Unlimited’s mind the independence is crucial for public trust.”
Funders also tend only to issue grants to news organizations that share the funding organization’s mission, leading potential grantees to reposition their coverage for a better shot at getting money. Here is some of what those on the grantee side told the researchers:
“At the back of our mind, when the donors want to prioritize accountability issues, inevitably, in order to win this grant, we want to make sure we are heavy on accountability areas to put in a proposal that will sail through. It is a subtle consideration, but it is there,” said Charles Odongtho of Wizarts Foundation, a Kampala-based organization aimed at explaining to the public the role of parliamentarians. “You want to convince them to give it to you. It’s a kind of marketing. It’s a kind of soft consideration in your mind.”
“Before I pitch them my project, [the donors] tell me what their priorities are,” said one Central American journalist.
“The truth is, he who pays the piper calls the tune. If what we do is not in line with what they fund, then they won’t fund us,” said Juliet Naiga from the Uganda Journalist Association, who cites independence as the biggest problem between donors and grantees.
The researchers found some disconnect between donors and the newsrooms they fund when it comes to what each considered as acceptable involvement, versus interference:
“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,” said Miguel Castro, Senior Program Officer, Global Media Partnerships at the Gates Foundation.
This view was not unanimously shared by grantees. “Information is a public good. We provide information so the public is informed and can make informed decisions. It’s not the job of a journalist to do advocacy around the issues they expose,” said Stefaans Brümmer from the amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism, which receives grant money from foundations (including the Open Society Foundation for South Africa and the RAITH Foundation), but does not accept money from governments and companies, or that is earmarked for reporting on designated subjects.
Interviews for the report were conducted across Colombia, Mexico, Uganda and South Africa between October 2015 and January 2016. Interviews over Skype were conducted in early 2016 with people representing foundations, journalism outlets, and intermediaries from countries such as Austria, Denmark, Ecuador, Guatemala, Kenya, The Netherlands, Norway, and Peru. You can read the full report here.