Kevin Davis: What the ‘Lens’ story teaches news nonprofits about editorial independence

“Unfortunately in today’s society, good journalism doesn’t necessarily translate to plentiful funding,” writes Paul Maassen, general manager of WWNO, in NetNewsCheck’s piece about the saga of how the Lens of New Orleans lost its office space on the Loyola University campus there.

He’s right. Today, nonprofit newsrooms around the globe have to scramble to keep the lights on, rely too heavily on too few funding sources and, as a result, are susceptible to influence exertion and retribution from funders, supporters and suppliers. 

While the case of Loyola’s decision to not renew the Lens’s lease for office space was ostensibly about resource constraints, the appearance of this move being punishment for the paper’s coverage of the university’s president, the Rev. Kevin Wildes—who then chaired the New Orleans’ Civil Service Commission—being in bed with city officials is very troubling.

Not only is this bad for the Lens (costing it more than $30,000 per year to relocate and pay for new space), it also deprives Loyola’s journalism students the opportunity to work on the forefront of civic journalism. And it negatively impacts the media environment in New Orleans, which continues to struggle with the information needs of its citizens. 

Unfortunately, this is not the only case of apparent backroom attempts to punish a nonprofit newsroom that aims to inform its community while also helping train a future generation of journalists. In June of 2013, legislation was introduced by the Wisconsin legislature that would have evicted the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism from its UW-Madison offices and barred faculty from working with its reporters.

Despite these attacks, both the Lens and the Wisconsin Center are able continue to report on the type of civic stories that commercial news organizations often can’t or won’t do. (Full disclosure: both the Lens and the Wisconsin Center are members of the organization that I run, the Investigative News Network.)

This is not an issue just for university-based nonprofit news organizations. Any nonprofit that accepts grants from a philanthropist or foundation also inherits the legacy of the funder or founder. Nonprofit news organizations that accept monies from foundations or directly from well-known philanthropists such as George Soros, John Arnold or the Koch Brothers are often painted with the funder’s political brush and suffer attacks based on that presumption.

But there are concrete steps a nonprofit can take before it accepts funds, services or enters into any contract with an outside party:

Be transparent. Producing ethical journalism in the public interest isn’t easy, but it’s what the 100-plus nonprofit news organizations that are members of INN do. Helping people understand what you do, why you do it and where you’re coming from is proving to be even harder. It starts with mission-driven organizations acting in the public interest by disclosing their donors and encouraging their readers to make up their own minds about the ethics and motivations of a story or the organization behind it.

Adopt strict editorial independence and conflict of interest policies. Under the review of leading ethicists in the field of journalism, INN recently crafted and adopted an Editorial Independence Policy, specifically to provide our nonprofit newsrooms with a clear statement to provide to their funders, supporters and suppliers that states up front and center:

“Our organization retains full authority over editorial content to protect the best journalistic and business interests of our organization. We will maintain a firewall between news coverage decisions and sources of all revenue. Acceptance of financial support does not constitute implied or actual endorsement of donors or their products, services or opinions.”

By adopting, posting and providing this policy to all its funders, supporters, suppliers and readers, along with a clearly stated Conflict of Interest policy, an independent news organization can go a long way to setting expectations up front. By educating the supporter at the outset, we believe that it will prevent and rebuff future attempts to influence the organization’s editorial content. 

Tell your own story, before someone else does. While journalists and practitioners pride themselves on their ethics and ethos, the battering that our profession has taken in public opinion means that it is now easier for bad actors to attack the source of a story than to deny the facts. Now more than ever, it is incumbent on investigative reporters and mission-driven news organizations to proactively tell their own stories and educate their audience rather than let others, who may or may not have the public’s interest at heart, do it for them.

While these steps may or may not have prevented the turn of events in New Orleans and Madison, it is likely that by adopting these ahead of time, news organizations will be more effective in establishing clear boundaries up front, while at the same time increasing the level of trust with their discerning audience members.

This post originally appeared on NetNewsCheck and has been republished with permission.