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Nov. 18, 2009, 12:10 p.m.

Defending the line between source and producer of news

[I’ve asked our nonprofit blogger extraordinaire Jim Barnett to respond to some of the ideas we’ve been exploring in our NGOs and the News series, cosponsored with Penn’s Center for Global Communication Studies. Here’s Jim’s first take. —Josh]

Back in the 1980s, before they began full-blown advertising campaigns aimed directly at consumers, prescription drug companies used to get a lot of “earned media” time on television by shipping out video news releases, or VNRs, to local stations.

For station managers with limited budgets, VNRs were godsends. The productions were top quality, and they’d typically include interviews with doctors and other experts, as well as engaging video such as pills pouring off the assembly line. All the local anchor had to do was tape a voiceover, and — voila! — news.

VNRs were great for drug companies, too. They got direct access to consumers plus the credibility of their stories being told by local TV personalities. But did they mention the nasty (if rare) side effects or the high cost of their particular brands?

Such is the problem when the line between news source and news producer becomes blurred. Lots of good information still gets into the public arena. But critical context — the work product of a professional reporter with a healthy sense of skepticism — can be missing.

This dynamic has been with us for a long time — even before the drug companies got into the television business. But now we see it playing out in greater orders of magnitude as the business models of legacy media, including newspapers and television networks, crumble under the weight of the digital revolution. As Kimberly Abbott noted in her essay last week, more and more production of international news is being handled directly by non-governmental organizations, the name given to nonprofits working at the international level.

No doubt, the NGOs that Abbott mentions are doing important, life-saving work. But does that mean they always can be trusted to provide the context that helps readers for their own opinions? Maybe. Abbott gives us a glimpse into how journalists are managing their partnerships with NGOs and trying to maintain their impartiality as they bring home stories that most likely would be impossible to deliver without the help of NGOs.

But rather than struggle with this problem on a case-by-case basis — or ignore it, as did Charles Sennott’s editor at The Boston Globe — the NGO would do itself a favor by addressing it head-on. Nonprofits, both at the international and domestic levels, need a system for nurturing and protecting real journalism within their institutional structures.

That system could take one or more forms within individual NGOs. The simplest could be an institutional commitment to upholding the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics. And there are governance practices that could help as well. NGOs could create newsrooms that have the same kind of independence from publishers as those at daily newspapers. Another level still would be the installation of an advisory board of respected journalists, much as Kaiser Health News has done.

But the bigger, better idea may be some kind of voluntary accrediting board that sets standards and inspects nonprofits that want to do real journalism and that don’t mind managing the internal tensions and conflicts that are certain to arise. Its seal of approval would send a signal to readers and viewers that they are getting a genuine, journalistic effort to find truth. Would it be foolproof? Probably not. But it would be better than what we have now, which is a mishmash of competing professional norms and situational ethics.

In the last analysis, it also would be good for nonprofits. Unlike the drug companies that put out VNRs to help boost their bottom lines, nonprofits exist to serve a mission. And that’s where a commitment to journalistic principles can help. Any number of major nonprofits have lost their way in recent years after becoming more focused on self-preservation than on fulfilling mission — and righted themselves after being exposed in the press. Without a healthy press corps to serve as a check on the value of their work, nonprofits could use a healthy dose of internal skepticism to help themselves stay on course.

Can real journalism live and thrive when it depends heavily on advocacy organizations?

The answer is that it has to.

POSTED     Nov. 18, 2009, 12:10 p.m.
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