Working Groups: Funding and Firewalls
Proposed News Policy 2: Production Funding for News Specials
In general, individual news specials should not be funded by organizations that have a vested interest in the specific content covered in the program. This includes funding from for-profit, non-profit and governmental institutions.
The following questions may be used to determine what constitutes a vested interest.
1. Would a reasonable person conclude that a for-profit funder has a stake in the content of a program? Consider the following examples:
- An energy company funding a news program on clean power alternatives.
- A hospital or clinic funding a news program on health care costs.
- A mortgage bank funding a news program on housing costs.
Recommendation: If a consumer would reasonably wonder whether a for-profit funder might influence the direction of a news special, then stations will normally be well served to reject such funding.
2. Non-profit and governmental entities raise particularly complex questions regarding what constitutes a vested interest. For example:
- Can the city health department fund a news special on sexually transmitted disease? To answer that questions, stations may want to consider the following:
- Is this a program the station would choose to do anyway?
- Is the city health department’s interest in funding the news special motivated by the desire to inform or are there other factors in play such as a desire to publicize pending city budget cuts?
- Can a foundation with clear public policy interests fund station coverage of public policy questions (For example, the current Open Society Foundations initiative to fund how public stations cover governance)? In considering this option, stations may want to consider the following points:
- Will the foundation play any role in determining the content of the program?
- Is the perception of the foundation such that it will pose reasonable questions about whether the funded program will be unbiased?
Recommendation: If a consumer would reasonably wonder whether a non-profit or governmental funder might influence the direction of a news special, then stations will normally be well served to reject such funding.
As with general news underwriting, it’s inevitable that there will be differing assessments about who can fund a news special, which is once again why full disclosure about the station’s decision making process is particularly important.
Additional Considerations in Funding News Programs
An additional question in funding news or news specials is whether having funders with off-setting interests negate the appearance of vested interest or undue influence on news content.
For example, Wisconsin Public Television and Radio has produced a long running series of candidate debates and public policy specials that is funded in part by the state teacher's union and the state's leading business lobby. Independently, each entity meets our definition of a vested interest. But do the off-setting nature of each organization's policy agenda serve to nullify any perception problems?
In assessing this question, stations should consider the following:
- What is the nature of the news special or series? A live candidate debate may not raise perception issues because the content of such an event is not tied to the specific areas of interest that overlap with the funding entities. However an individual special on education reform or business taxes might create perception issues even if the program has funders which seemingly off-set each other.
- Would a reasonable media consumer wonder if the news special in question explored all aspects of a particular topic? In other words, despite having funders with different public policy agendas, would consumers still wonder whether the program asked all the tough questions and explored not just the truth but the "whole truth."