Nonprofit News Sites and Donor Disclosure: What Are the Protocols?

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December 3, 2015; Columbia Journalism Review

Columbia Journalism Review reports that ExxonMobil is challenging the ethics of a Columbia Journalism School team that produced a two-part investigation of ExxonMobil. Among other things, the corporation challenged the independence of the reporting, based on the fact that when the L.A. Times published the results of the Energy and Environmental Reporting Project, the team had not disclosed its donors, though they did so later online. Though the Times and Columbia Journalism School Dean Steve Coll both say the donors did not influence the reporting, Coll says the appearance is not ideal.

“Journalism standards and journalism protocols and journalism ethics should regulate this work,” says Coll. “It’s related to scholarship, but it’s not the same thing. I’ve been really grateful in this episode to discover the fact that Columbia can handle the fact that it has a journalism school in the middle of a much wider university, even when that journalism school comes under the kind of pressure that newsrooms come under when they report on hard subjects. This was a real test of that.”

“That is why it is important to try to develop a mix of funding, and above all to operate with true and full independence, just as newsrooms did when commercial advertisers supported investigative reporting,” Coll continued. “My longer-term goal in building investigative reporting at Columbia is to either win the Powerball or find a donor who will endow our projects without any concern for what broad subject areas we choose from year to year. In the meantime, we rely on readers to trust that we follow the facts only where they lead.”

In nonprofit journalism, funding for particular investigations or topic coverage can come from funders with an interest in the issue and a point of view, and this can cause issues when it comes to perception. “Nonprofit news is comparatively new (with a few notable exceptions, like NPR), and most organized funders are geared for advocacy,” writes Bill Keller, editor-in-chief of the nonprofit Marshall Project. “So far, this has not been an issue for us. But we’re new.”

Some have been rushing to get model protocols developed. Dick Tofel, president of ProPublica, says that while its preference is general operating support (whose isn’t?), they do “accept funding for beats, but not for specific stories. […] Maintaining this distinction seems critical to us in preserving our rule that no donors…know in advance about stories before we publish them.”

He also stresses the importance of being fully transparent. But ProPublica is one of the big dogs among nonprofit news sites, and such fine points may be harder to adhere to in smaller organizations.

“I wish foundations would just fund journalism across the board,” said Dean Coll. (And who among us doesn’t want something similar?)

The L.A. Times maintains that the disclosures done online were sufficient. Spokeswoman Hillary Manning said, in a statement to CJR:

With each story, we have clearly noted that the reporting was done by Columbia University’s Energy and Environment Reporting Project with the Los Angeles Times,”. “A list of the project’s funders has been available on the project’s website. […] The funders have had no involvement in or influence over the stories. The stories have withstood intense scrutiny and have made a valuable contribution to the public discourse. We look forward to publishing additional stories on this important subject in partnership with the Columbia journalism team.

“It’s similar to the ethics that had to be managed in the days when this kind of work was supported by commercial advertising,” Coll says. “[Advertisers] were very financially important to the newspaper, but the publisher and the editor in the newsroom figured out how to build a wall between the advertisers and the work. And that’s exactly what we have to do here: We have to build a wall between the funders and the work. That’s what I’m responsible for.”—Ruth McCambridge