Why is the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Doubling Down on Health Journalism?

Are we entering a new era of fragmented journalism funding? Rather than give newsrooms, nonprofits, and schools a check for broad, no-strings-attached journalism funding, foundations seem to be focusing more attention and resources on coverage of specific issues.

The corroborating evidence is striking. The Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University is rolling out a program focused solely on business reporting, thanks to a $1 million grant from the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation. Meanwhile, the Lily Endowment wants journalists to "get religion," offering scholarships of up to $5,000 to take "any college religion courses at any accredited institution at any time." Other foundations have given support for reporting on public pensions, budget issues, the environment, criminal justice, poverty, and more. 

Now we're seeing signs that the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation may be expanding its footprint in another niche area of journalism—health reporting. Of course, RWJF has long funded in this area, going back to the 1980s, granting millions of dollars to NPR and its local affiliates, as well as some other news organizations.

Recently, the foundation awarded a $1 million grant to WNYC that will create a health unit at the station. This unit will "cover three core areas—healthy living and wellness, health care economics and policy, and medical science and discovery—through a blend of high-impact investigative reporting, powerful first-person narrative, data news tools, and deep audience engagement."

So why is the foundation funding this audacious health-related journalism effort? The foundation's commitment reflects the zeitgeist of the times while simultaneously trying to shape it to their vision of a new "culture of health" that leads to a healthier general public.

Now that the United States finally is moving toward universal coverage, the next big goal for many health funders is to improve people's health while also bringing down the cost of healthcare. These challenges are arguably more daunting and complex than getting universal coverage, requiring a wider array of actors to take different kinds of steps. 

Better media coverage of health is one way to improve both public and elite understanding of the issues in play, as well as change behavior.  

Among other things, many Americans understand the importance of healthy eating, but often lack clear guidance on exactly what to eat. Scientific opinions on the value of certain foods (gluten, anyone?) seem to change monthly. And while Americans want to eat well, they also have a budget to balance.

And this is where public radio can make a difference. It should be noted that while WNYC is getting this RWJF grant, the work of this unit—NPR's flagship affiliate—will be accessible to both local and national audiences.

In early 2015, WNYC will launch a new podcast "dedicated to the health concerns of individuals, families and communities. Shorter stories and segments will air on local shows including The Brian Lehrer Show and WNYC’s local editions of Morning Edition and All Things Considered, as well as on national programs such as The Takeaway and Marketplace."

Ultimately, WNYC’s health coverage seeks to reach at least 10 million people in New York and across the nation. Good stuff.

As for the continuing fragmentation of journalism funding? Get used to it. And also get used to the sticky issues of journalistic integrity raised by philanthropic funding of reporting, since most funders have an agenda. RWJF, for example, took a clear stance in favor of Obamacare and is deeply involved in a debate over implementation of the ACA that is highly political. 

Should we be worried that NPR health coverage is underwritten by a funder that isn't neutral in these matters? I suppose how you answer that question willl depend on your politics. 

But here's a thought experiment: Imagine that WNYC was taking $1 million from the Charles Koch Foundation to report on health issues?