By Ted Eytan from Washington, DC, USA [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
May 31, 2015; Hot Air and National Public Radio

Many watching the field of nonprofit journalism have noted the dangers posed by grant funding in terms of encouraging biased coverage, particularly if the funder has a distinct point of view on the topic being covered. Last week, NPQ covered one such instance in National Public Radio’s acceptance of grant money from the Ploughshares Fund to support “national security reporting that emphasizes the themes of U.S. nuclear weapons policy and budgets, Iran’s nuclear program, international nuclear security topics and U.S. policy toward nuclear security.”

The Associated Press reported it as follows:

A group the White House recently identified as a key surrogate in selling the Iran nuclear deal gave National Public Radio $100,000 last year to help it report on the pact and related issues, according to the group’s annual report.

Now, let’s be clear: Most of the media outlets reporting on this story are conservative. But these kinds of relationships occur with funders that could be characterized as falling on either side of the center line, both left and right. In fact, so long as those allegiances and biases are clear, people take them for what they are, discounting them or giving them more credence as needed—often a Rorschach test for the media consumer. It begins to matter as an ethical and credibility issue when the news outlet does not disclose either its point of view or any potential influence to the balance of the coverage.

As these ethical issues develop between funders and nonprofit news sites, it is critical to establish a firewall between funders and editorial content. However, it’s also important to do full disclosures when taking money from a group or an individual with an investment in a certain kind of coverage. NPR says it did have a firewall in place, and that may be so, but part of that firewall, they say, was in obscuring from the reporters just who was supporting their work.

On Friday, NPR’s ombudsman, Elizabeth Jensen, defended the general practice of taking grant money from those with a strong point of view on a contested issue, but nevertheless acknowledges that perhaps this case did cross a line:

This case is a bit different from, say, the money that NPR gets from the MacArthur Foundation in general operating support for investigative and international reporting, or even the money it gets from the Gates Foundation to support the education blog and Goats and Soda global health blog. In this case, NPR’s money came from one side of a very partisan debate on a specific issue to fund reporting on a specific topic. And the money was not from a sponsor who in exchange would get on-air credit; in this case, the sponsor money was going directly to support the reporting.

Some on both the left and the right might disagree with the characterization of Gates as neutral in our education and health agendas, but let’s move on….

As part of our assessment of what happened, my office looked at the 254 on-air newsmagazine stories from January 1st, 2015, to the present that we categorized as directly related to the Iran deal. […] Of those 254 stories, we categorized 118 as neutral; they were mostly NPR reporters talking to NPR hosts about developments in the lead-up to the deal or its implementation earlier this year. The remaining 136 stories presented a viewpoint of a source either for or against the deal. Of those voices in those stories, 160 people were quoted speaking in favor of the deal and 102 were against it.

Of course, there is more than one way to assess fairness in news coverage. Numbers of stories or interviews is one metric, but other measures include the number of broadcast minutes devoted to each side of the debate and how the viewpoints themselves are described and portrayed in the stories. Bias can be nuanced as well as blunt, so measuring bias requires attention to multiple criteria.

Jensen continues her analysis:

Where I found more cause for concern—and where both Oreskes and Mohn agree that there was a breakdown, at least in internal processes and disclosure—is in the large number of Ploughshares-funded analysts and experts who made it on the air to talk up the deal, without any acknowledgment of that by NPR.

Even the president of Ploughshares Fund was invited on to discuss the deal, but now NPR says it had an institutional memory lapse about its underwriting.

The newsroom is also looking into why the Cirincione interview in particular did not raise any red flags. Standards and practices editor Mark Memmott said it may have been the case that Ploughshares had been a supporter for so long that supervisors did not know, “that institutional memory had been lost” and needs to be refreshed.

Jensen further said that the system at NPR requires that reporters not be told who is supporting the coverage so they will not play to the funder. But even while insisting NPR did nothing wrong, Jensen suggests that the outlet stop taking money from groups like Ploughshares Fund because it might make the network look bad:

In the case of grants such as the one from Ploughshares, which are intended to fund reporting on specific, highly controversial issues, my suggestion is that NPR consider not accepting them in the future if they contain such specific language.

No, the firewall was not breached in this case, but the damage that happened from perception is just too great a risk to NPR’s reputation.

There is a larger problem for NPR than issues of its internal firewall. Through its relationship with the Ploughshares Fund, NPR became a part of the Iran nuclear deal “echo chamber” the White House built and bragged about. Ploughshares was a knowing participant; NPR was presumably unaware of the larger game being played. Not only don’t NPR’s reporters know who is paying for their story coverage, NPR and other media outlets may not know their organizations may be part of an orchestrated propaganda effort by government or moneyed interests. There’s more than one firewall that nonprofit and public media outlets accepting grant support need to be concerned about.—Ruth McCambridge