New Ethics for the Non-Profit Newsroom?

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Three centers for journalism released a report on ethical issues in nonprofit news centers.

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On April 26, three journalism centers published a roundtable report, “Ethics for the New Investigative Newsroom” on nonprofit journalism centers. The roundtable discussed major concerns for nonprofit news organizations including funding, transparency and editorial independence. According to the report, everyone at the roundtable was “concerned about donor acceptance and transparency” because keeping the editorial process independent and “worthy of the public confidence” are vital.

The report is based on a Jan. 29, 2010 roundtable discussion on nonprofit journalism centers organized by Stephen J.A.  Ward at The Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Andy Hall at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and Brant Houston, the Knight Chair in Investigative Reporting at the University of Illinois.

The Columbia Journalism Review, a nonprofit journalism organization, wrote about the report April 26, but added one more point to the report’s list of issues:  “Don’t get in this game if you are simply looking for a platform for your ideas; get in it because you believe in the centrality of independent journalism to a free society.”

The University of Wisconsin’s journalism school Web site wrote that Ward said, “This report breaks new ground on the ethical questions…The report and the second conference also show that our new center is taking the lead in the study and discussion of journalism ethics.”

Participants were: Robert Cribb, Toronto Star investigative reporter; Margaret Wolf FreivogelSt. Louis Beacon editor and co-founder; Alden Loury, Chicago Reporter publisher; Christa Westerberg; Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council attorney and vice president; and  Charles Lewis, Investigative Reporting Workshop founding executive editor and Center for Public Integrity founder.

“Nonprofit journalism changes the way journalism is done; alters its economic base; and develops new linkages between journalists, funders and audiences,” the report noted.  According to the report, new non-profit centers are often smaller than most newsrooms and “tend to be multi-media, collaborative newsrooms that bring together different types of journalist.

The roundtable noted that nonprofits must be wary of sudden large donations and that they must also check for potential conflicts of interest from donating individuals or organizations.  The group also noted nonprofits must decide how to handle funding from “conventional sources, such as corporations, government, and unions.”

The roundtable highlighted that nonprofits should avoid anonymous funders, although it acknowledged sometimes donors request anonymity for reasons of modesty and privacy. But, “it is better to reveal one’s funding sources and be criticized, than not to reveal and have the information surface elsewere,” the report noted.

The Columbia Journalism Review wrote about the report April 26.  CJR wrote that that it’s really important to establish standards for nonprofit journalism funding because all funding – whether from profit or not-for-profit sources- is always of concern to journalists because of potential real or perceived conflicts of interest.

Another major concern of the roundtable was avoiding conflicts of interest.

The group noted that centers have to be able to do whichever stories they want and that they must decide how to handle story suggestions from donors or board members. The center warned that “there are groups who are ready ‘to pounce’ with an allegation of bias against a new venture that they consider contrary to their politics,” so centers must be careful not just with which stories to cover but where each story is placed.

The report said Freivogal stated that journalism in general needs new ethics guidelines because its credibility is “in shambles.”

The group also noted how nonprofit journalism used to be “stand-alone ventures” but are now often network-based.  For example, the Investigative News Network is a network of more than 20 nonprofit investigative news organizations.

The report also included the following articles: “A Survivor’s Guide to Ethics in a Nonprofit Investigative Newsroom” by Charles Lewis, “Dancing with Donors, Coping with Conflicts,” by Andy Hall, “Legal Considerations for Nonprofit Centers,” by Christa Westerberg, “The Canadian Landscape,” by Robert Cribb, and “New Networks, New Challenges,” by Brant Houston.

iMediaEthics is contacting Stephen J.A. Ward and will update with any response.

UPDATE: 05/12/2010 9:08 AM EST: Ward wrote in an e-mail to iMediaEthics that, significantly, all the participants were concerned about protecting “journalistic integrity of these new experiments in journalism.” Ward wrote that the roundtable’s participants were concerned that “if the ethical issues were not addressed properly and openly,” then the public’s view of the nonprofits could suffer.  Ward wrote that if the centers aren’t transparent, “the public will lose confidence” in their independence.  Ward also wrote that the public will have a hard time differentiating centers from “more questionable experiments in nonprofit journalism,” like Web sites which “front” for political groups.

Ward wrote that the report isn’t a one-time deal.  He wrote that he and the other participants consider the report to be “only the start of a long discussion on these issues” and that while the report was “a good start,” there need to be more specific and detailed reports.  Ward wrote that the “focus of my center’s research and work is on the leading edge of new media ethics, so nonprofit journalism is a topic that will continue to interest us and define our work.”  Ward wrote that he hopes nonprofit journalists use the report to improve and self-evaluate.

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New Ethics for the Non-Profit Newsroom?

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