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Tuesday
Jul212015

More Funding Is Flowing for Education Journalism. Is That OK?

Our recent post on Campbell Brown's education news site and the funders supporting it started us thinking about the larger topic of funder support for journalistic coverage of education issues. The topic raises questions about the current journalistic landscape, relationships between funders and media organizations, and what implications those ties may have for editorial independence.

These are knotty issues. For example, it may have come as a surprise to some readers (it certainly did to us) that Education Week, the K-12 education newspaper of record, receives funding from the Walton Family Foundation, a funder with a strong agenda and point of view on K-12 issues. 

Brown, a former CNN anchor turned education reform advocate, launches her new site, The Seventy Four, this month. Named for the 74 million children in U.S. public schools, The Seventy Four is intended to stimulate greater discussion of the need for reform of the nation's education system, which Brown sees as captive to teachers' unions and other interest groups. Funders supporting The Seventy Four include Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Walton Family Foundation, investor Jonathan Sackler, and the Peter and Carmen Lucia Buck Foundation.

Related: Who's Funding Campbell Brown's Education News Site?

Multiple education news sites and organizations exist, including educationworld.com and educationews.org, among others. Two of the largest organizations specializing in journalistic coverage of education include Editorial Projects in Education, the nonprofit publisher of Education Week and the edweek.org website, and the Education Writers Association (EWA), a national association of education journalists, based in Washington, D.C. EWA reports a membership of more than 3,000 journalists. Both organizations receive support from a broad range of funders.

EWA receives support from more than a dozen prominent funders, including the Gates, Carnegie, Ford, Cooke, Joyce, Kern, Lumina, Dell, Raikes, Spencer, Wallace, Walton, and Hewlett foundations. Editorial Projects in Education (EPE) also receives funding from Gates, Joyce, Wallace, Walton, Hewlett, Raikes, Cooke, Carnegie, and Ford. Other supporters of EPE include the Atlantic Philanthropies, Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, and the California Endowment. 

An examination of the specific grants provided by these funders to education news organizations over the years reveals the tendency of funders to support journalistic coverage of issues and events that align to the funders' education funding interests. In the example of Walton and EPE, Walton funding supports Education Week's coverage of parent empowerment issues. Walton is a top funder of parent empowerment activities and organizations, such as Parent Revolution, which advocates "parent trigger laws," through which parents can force changes in failing public schools, including replacement of principals and staff, or transforming the campus into a charter school.

Ford Foundation funding for EPE reflects funder interest in more and better learning time, a key Ford initiative in education. Funding supported Education Week coverage of how increased learning time in schools across the U.S. enhances student achievement. Cooke supports scholarships and programs for high-achieving, low-income students, and its grants to EPE and EWA have supported coverage of such students' experiences.

In other instances, funder dollars have helped build capacity among education journalists, enhancing their understanding and coverage of key issues. A pair of grants to EWA from the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, for example, helped build the capacity of education journalists — not usually a quantitative-minded bunch — to more effectively leverage K-12 data to inform the public on education issues.

Earlier this year, we also reported on a $550,000 grant by Walton to the Atlantic Monthly. The money was for two events hosted in partnership with the Aspen Institute, but the Atlantic regularly covers education issues. 

The specificity and alignment of these grants for journalistic activities make sense. After all, most funders do not write checks to support the general operations of recipient organizations. Why should news organizations be any different? The challenge for news organizations, then, is to ensure that funder support does not influence the tone of their coverage and cause them to cross the line from reporting to advocacy.

The key safeguard is for education news organizations to maintain a strict firewall between editorial and business operations, better ensuring editorial independence. Organizations should also operate transparently, disclosing their funders. In coverage related to Walton, for example, Education Week discloses that it receives Walton funding for its coverage of parent empowerment issues. The websites of both EPE and EWA list their funders, and in the case of EPE, the types of activities and coverage supported by the funders. EWA's website also states that it retains editorial control of its programming and content.

The issues raised by philanthropic support for education journalism are hardly unique. We've also looked at funders getting behind news coverage of other issues, such as health care, public pensions, and the environment. Funders have also backed investigative news outfits like ProPublica. Overall, news organizations and sites, whether they specialize in general news coverage or niches such as education, have become increasingly reliant on funders as sources of revenue as the old business model for journalism of paid advertising and circulation has collapsed.

It's heartening to see philanthropy coming to the rescue of journalism. But this trend is also problematic, and represents one more example of the troubling questions arising regarding philanthropy's growing role in more corners of U.S. society. Nowhere is the influence of private money over public life more pronounced than in K-12 education and yet, as it turns out, the specialized media most likely to raise questions about the trend are themselves supported by foundations. 

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