Working Groups: Funding and Firewalls
Information programs obviously carry the same obligation to truth and accuracy as news and history content and therefore the funding questions are essentially the same. However, one wrinkle which deserves additional exploration is the creation of partnerships which allow outside organization s to both fund content and play a role in shaping that content.
A case in point is Twin Cities Public Television deciding to produce a local follow-up program to a Frontline film on Parkinson’s disease. TPT approached the Mayo Clinic about both funding the program and working collaboratively on it. The Mayo Clinic agreed and the resulting program featured interviews with patients, families and a physician from the Mayo Clinic. The program presented factual information about Parkinson’s and did not feature specific services of the Mayo Clinic. The station was also transparent about the nature of the funding and editorial partnership and acknowledged the co-production relationship on air.
Some questions to consider:
- Is it appropriate for a funder to also be an editorial partner?
- If so, are there particular kinds of programs where such funding is appropriate and others where it isn’t?
- Is the funding organization, which would share editorial direction in the project, generally well respected?
- Were any strings attached to the funding of the program such as a requirement that a representative of the funding organization be included in the program?
- Would the station have produced the program with the same editorial approach if funding had come from a different source? In other words, did the nature of the funding in any way alter the nature of the content?
Allowing funders to play an editorial role is one way some public television stations have utilized to increase the amount of local content they produce and sustain their production efforts during difficult economic times. Practitioners of this approach would also note that the programs produced using this model must still adhere to station editorial standards. In other words, such programs must meet the standards outlined in our earlier proposed policy, that they “represent facts as facts, opinions as opinions, and will always exert care to label each accordingly.” In sum, this point of view argues, the proof of editorial integrity comes from the program itself not the source of its funding.
Overall, this approach to content production raises a series of important questions. Is it acceptable to produce an informational program that meets station editorial standards for fact based reporting yet allows a funder to play a role in shaping that content? Will such programming prompt concerns about whether the program is an “infomercial” even if the program meets the station’s editorial standards? Conversely, will rejecting such relationships mean depriving the audience of useful content that might not otherwise get produced? In the end, where does the greater audience service lie? Stations who choose to pursue projects where editorial direction is shared should be prepared to answer these questions and adopt transparent policies that will guide their decision making. TPT’s own rallying cry is worth remembering: “We will never mislead the public. Period.”