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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Who’s paying for your news?

The landscape of American journalism has changed considerably in recent decades, with partisanship rising and traditional media struggling financially.  Concurrently, the U.S. has seen a significant rise in the number of non-profit journalism centers, such as the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. Unlike traditional news organizations, many of these centers provide their stories to other media free of charge. However, as content by these centers is picked up by major for-profit news organizations, it becomes increasingly important for readers and viewers to understand the financing behind such centers.

fan of dollar bills

Photo by Steven dePolo/Creative Commons

This was the focus of the panel, “Who Funds Your News?” part of the third annual Journalism Ethics Conference. The conference topic was “In Your Face: Partisan Media in a Democracy” and was held at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Fluno Center on Friday, April 15.

When a newspaper picks up content from a non-profit journalism center and runs a story in its print or online editions, said New York Times Public Editor Arthur Brisbane, it can count on receiving e-mail from readers who are skeptical of the story’s source.

Often, he says, readers are concerned about who funds the center, where story ideas come from and who the center’s reporters are. “In that climate, it becomes compulsory [for the center] to display that information,” Brisbane said.

Andy Hall, Executive Director of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, agreed.  He said that if readers are aware of where funding streams come from, they might actually be more likely to believe a center’s work is more creditable.

Although the Times presently works with three non-profit centers, in San Francisco, Houston, and Chicago, Brisbane says he has received the most emails regarding content from San Francisco than either of the other centers.

Hall cited a recent situation in which his Center published a report highlighting the number of emails Wisconsin‘s Gov. Scott Walker received in favor of controversial budget repair bill. Although the story was picked up by partisan blogs and websites from both sides of the aisle, conservative blogs actually cited the report as being especially credible because the Center receives some of its funding from well-known liberal foundations.

Although partisan news organizations often accept donations as well, many do not disclose who their donors are. As such, the panelists argued, it is unclear if these anonymous donors exert control over the organizations’ coverage and news stories.

While non-profit journalism centers legally can accept funding sources from anonymous donors, they often choose not to, in order to ensure readers that they are open and honest sources of journalism and news.

When asked about accepting anonymous sources of revenue, Hall acknowledged that the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism has not yet accepted funding from an anonymous donor.  If the Center’s board ever chose to do so, it would have to guarantee that the donor did not exercise editorial control over the  content. Additionally, it would have to ensure that the Center’s principles were not compromised by accepting the donation.

While the exact future of non-profit journalism centers is unknown, securing viable, impartial funding sources will likely remain a challenge for these centers for the years to come.


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