How Does Grant Money Affect What Journalists Cover and How They Report?

Can philanthropy "save" journalism? It's a question we think about often — along with an obvious follow-up: What might be the cost to independent journalism? 

As we've said before, nearly all funders have some kind of agenda, and few make grants without an eye on advancing their agenda. So when we see big grants going to public radio or top education publications from funders known to favor shifts in public policy, we wonder just what exactly these funders are getting for their money. How does grant money actually affect what journalists cover, and how they report? How much should we fret about potential conflicts of interest? 

The Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) provided some insights, exploring whether funding for reporting on different topics does, in fact, result in more coverage of those topics. 

By accessing Media Impact Funders' comprehensive data sets on media and journalism funding, CJR ran a search on "health" in the data set and a conducted a manual tallying of related journalism projects and found — lo and behold — "a dramatic 2012 increase in donations to health journalism compared to previous years."

Is the analysis air tight? No. It could be coincidence. It could signify that, on a whole, outlets are more interested in health journalism, exclusive of where the money is coming from. It could be some sort of collective consciousness phenomenon. "It’s hard to draw a clear distinction," says the CJR. To which we reply, "Would funders really be doling out millions if they didn't expect some sort of return on investment?"

Still, even if we can agree that there's an obvious connnection between grants paid and stories reported, that doesn't answer the bigger question of whether such funding may color the nature of the reporting. Or the question of who ultimately benefits from journalism philanthropy. For example, there's little doubt that a $1 million Robert Wood Johnson grant to WNYC a while back to create a health unit at the station is expanding its health coverage. Or that listeners in New York and beyond may be more informed about health as a result, possibly in ways that extend their lives. But are we likely also to see WNYC saying more nice things about the Affordable Care Act, which RWJF supports, and more nasty things about super-size soft drinks (which the foundation has sought to curb)? 

Related: Did You Hear the Koch Brothers Just Gave a Million Bucks to NPR to Cover Healthcare?

That kind of content analysis is one way to explore what foundation dollars are really buying in the journalistic marketplace. Stabs at such work have already been made, particularly by critics of ed reform funders like Gates and Walton, who have given millions for education reporting. You hardly need a deep foresensic investigation to find causes for alarm: One of the most heavily backed new education media outlets of recent years, The Seventy Four, is clearly aligned with ed reformers. No surprise there, since it was founded by a booster of charters and critic of teachers unions, former CNN anchor Campbell Brown. As we've reported, a who's who of ed reform funders are behind The Seventy Four. Meanwhile, looking at another issue area, any number of funders have supported Grist, an advocacy-oriented media site in the environmental space. 

Related: Imperfect Together? With Another Flap, More Questions About Philanthropy and Journalism

It's hard to sort out these questions surrounding philanthropy and journalism. One reason is that it's playing out in different ways. A publication like The Seventy Four is quite different than Education Week, which is clearly intended to be a neutral media outlet. Yet money from ed funders like Walton also reaches Education Week, as we've reported. Is Walton giving money to The Seventy Four because it wants to support a pro-reform media outlet, even as it sees reporting in Education Week as playing a more objective, informative role?

To pick a different contrast: The Ford Foundation has given money to the strongly progressive Nation Institute for investigative reporting, and also money to the impartial Los Angeles Times. What's the difference in this grantmaking or the expected outcomes? 

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

Then there are outfits like ProPublica and the Center for Investigative Reporting, which seem are different — neutral and nonpartisan, yet focused on exposing abuses and injustices. What are funders hoping for by backing these places? 

This may seem obvious, but it strikes us that greater transparency in this area is essential. Readers should have a keener sense of who's backing reporting, and what goals or policies those funders embrace. Right now, that's hard to figure out for the average reader. It's one thing to be told that RWJF is backing health reporting. It's another for readers to know that this is a progressive foundation that has long promoted a larger government role in the healthcare and food sectors.

While we can't say how such better disclosure might work in practice, without being cumbersome, this is definitely an issue that needs more attention. 

Related: Can Philanthropically-Backed Journalism Impair Free and Open Public Discourse?