The Humanitarian Journalism project is seeking to better understand how the news media report on humanitarian crises and what shapes their coverage.

What’s Wrong with Philanthro-Journalism?

Martin Scott

February 8, 2019


By Martin Scott (@martinscott2010). Originally published by Nieman Reports.

Tom Pilston, PANOS. The strain starts to show as Executive Producer Carlos Van Meek (centre) takes morning conference at news channel Al Jazeera English in Doha.

Funding by private foundations plays a vital role in filling the gaps often left by mainstream news coverage, especially in important areas like investigative, international, and local journalism.

In the case of international news, for example, six of the nine most widely read nonprofit news outlets specializing in coverage of humanitarian affairs rely almost entirely on foundation support. These include The Guardian Global Development site, IRIN News, News Deeply, NPR Goats & Soda, the Thomson Reuters Foundation, and UN Dispatch.

But while a significant amount of nonprofit journalism in particular would not exist without foundation funding, it is still important to ask how the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Omidyar Network, Open Society Foundations, and others may be shaping the journalism they support.

Beyond threats to autonomy

The overriding concern about philanthro-journalism has been that foundations may compromise journalists’ autonomy. New York University professor Rodney Benson, for example, has warned that, “media organizations dependent on foundation project-based funding risk being captured by foundation agendas and [are] less able to investigate the issues they deem most important.”

However, we think that such concerns may be missing the bigger picture. My recent research with  Mel Bunce, founding director of the Humanitarian News Research Network based at City, University of London, and Kate Wright, Chancellor’s Fellow at the University of Edinburgh, involving 74 interviews with journalists and foundation representatives in the area of international nonprofit news, suggests that that the consequences of foundation funding extend well beyond journalistic autonomy.

In fact, it is generally against the interests of foundations to (be seen to) interfere with editorial independence, as it would damage the reputation of the news organizations they are supporting. As the editor of one of the foundation-funded outlets explained:

Our funders have been exceptionally clear that they do not want to direct the coverage…. because they know that true value is in us providing exceptional quality journalism that is credible. That has currency, because no one questions it… because, frankly, paid content is not respected… [and is] viewed as somewhat tinged.

Instead, our research shows that foundation funding is inadvertently shaping the “boundaries” of international nonprofit journalism, or the ways journalists understand, value, and carry out their work.  We identified three main ways in which foundation funding inadvertently can change international nonprofit journalism.

Enhancing “visibility” and “presence”

First, in order to avoid influencing the editorial agendas of news outlets, foundations rarely make open calls for international journalism funding. Instead, such funding emerges from an informal “courting” process whereby foundations and journalists gradually get to know each other and seek to identify areas of mutual interest.

Unfortunately, one of the unintended consequences of this often protracted process is that news outlets can spend a great deal of time and resources cultivating open-ended relationships with a range of foundation representatives and generally enhancing their “visibility” and “presence.” This matters because it can take resources away from their editorial work, leading to a reduction in news output.

Glendora Meikle, former deputy director of the International Reporting Project (IRP), even claims that their reluctance to “spend money to make money,” rather than “to spend money to report,” directly contributed to IRP’s closure in early 2018:

In order to remain competitive, we would have needed to spend a lot more money on ourselves, rather than our programs. We needed a massive website redesign, which would have set us back tens of thousands of dollars… We needed to buy expensive plane tickets and hotel stays to attend the conferences our peers and potential funders were attending.

This informal process of securing foundation funding also favors larger news outlets, such as The Guardian, which have the capacity to absorb the relevant marketing tasks. As one interviewee put it, “it’s the same groups that tend to get the funding… I understand, practically, why they do that, but it does make it very difficult to break into that world.”

Getting “more bang for less buck”

Second, most foundations that support international journalism require news outlets to provide evidence of the impact of their work. This can also indirectly shape the nature of international journalism.

Specifically, news outlets are incentivized to focus on producing content that is likely to be more “impactful.” This was generally understood to include longer-form, explanatory, and off-agenda coverage targeted at niche, specialist audiences—including policy-makers. For example, the director of one nonprofit intermediary encouraged its grantees to, “think of the long tail,” arguing that, “long-form work with a shelf-life is more attractive in the philanthropic world than breaking news or hyper-topical reports.”

The thematization of international news

Third, the most common form of support foundations give to international journalism is to underwrite news about specific thematic areas such as global development or modern day slavery. Such thematic funding allows journalists to claim that their autonomy is unaffected because, as long as the underwritten news beat is relatively broadly defined, journalists are free to choose which stories to cover. Equally, it allows foundations to claim that they are helping to facilitate change in a specific area, so long as they adopt a relatively broad “theory of change.”

However, when such thematic support is one of the only sources of funding available for international news, it can result in less coverage of other issues that fall outside of these themes. As one journalist put it, “because we are externally funded, we have a tendency to see our coverage as separate projects.”

It also means that foundation-funded news outlets are more likely to report on events in ways that are relevant to their funded thematic areas (for example, seeing issues through the lens of global health or human trafficking).

Who decides?

Because of these three factors, foundation funding is ultimately directing international news toward outcome-oriented, explanatory journalism in a small number of niche subject areas.

These changes to international journalism are not inherently “good” nor “bad.” The thematization of international news, for example, may be celebrated for encouraging more, consistent coverage of persistent, transnational issues, such as mass migration and global health. Equally, though, it may be condemned for leading to the marginalization of international news because in-depth thematic coverage may only appeal to more specialist or niche audiences.

What concerns us most is that the nature of international journalism—and the role that it plays in democracy—is inadvertently being shaped by a handful of foundations, rather than by journalists themselves.

A number of journalists and commentators have recently suggested that “a lot more foundations [will] move into supporting journalism” in 2019. Earlier this month, for example, the director of IRIN News, Heba Aly, predicted that many more private foundations would begin supporting international nonprofit journalism in particular.

This would undoubtedly be welcome news for a field of nonprofit journalism where there just isn’t enough donor money to go around.

However, if more foundations do become active in this area, journalists need to consider, not just how to protect their independence, but also what kinds of journalism they want to produce.

The article “Foundation funding and the boundaries of journalism,” by Martin Scott, Mel Bunce and Kate Wright, is published in Journalism Studies and is available (Open Access) here.

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