Working Groups: Funding and Firewalls
In what ways, for example, are news and history programs different? Both often deal with complex and controversial matters of public importance and as such both must adhere to strict standards of accuracy and fairness. So can a history program be funded by an entity which has a vested interest in the outcome? Two station examples to consider:
- The Nebraska Beef Council providing major funding of an NET (Nebraska’s public television network) program on the history of beef called “Beef State”.
- A non-profit organization, with close ties to a well-known vintner, providing funding for a KQED film focusing on the history of wine making, including the role of that vintner.
Both of these examples raise important questions about perception and the role of vested interest. In the “Beef State” program, NET proceeded with the program but did so in partnership with the state historical society, which served as co-producer, in order to insure historical accuracy and allay viewer perception issues. It should also be noted that “Beef State” adhered to all of NET’s editorial standards and that additional funders were also involved, including both those with direct and indirect ties to the beef industry (the Nebraska Cattlemen Association and Farmers Mutual of Nebraska).
Some questions to consider:
- Would a reasonable viewer wonder whether the program in question would yield a “no holds barred” account?
- Does the addition of a respected entity like the state historical society negate perception questions?
- Does the nature of the historical subject matter? In other words, is it different for the beef council to fund a program on the history of beef than for an arts organization to fund a program on the history of marching bands?
Carefully thinking through the answers to these questions will help stations decide their course of action. Similarly, the history of wine making example from KQED raises an additional complication. In this case the funder had both a vested interest in the history topic and in one of the featured winemakers. In the end, in part because of considerable unfavorable publicity, KQED backed away from the program.
Again, as with our earlier examples, thoughtful managers may answer these questions in different ways. The common denominator is not so much the nature of the answer but the nature of the questioning process each station goes through. That questioning process needs to be both thorough and transparent so that staff, the funding community and consumers all understand how decisions were reached. We will offer more suggestions on the importance of transparency later in this report.