Who pays for the news?


Does the journalistic code of ethics mean it’s less ethical to give than to receive? That seems to be the conclusion reached by Randy Cohen, former New York Times ethics columnist, in a recent Village Voice interview about Kickstarter, a self-described “new way to fund and follow creativity.” Cohen wrote:

“I think you’ve got the ethics of journalism issue just right: You can contribute to any worthy cause as long as it’s not something you cover,” Cohen told us over e-mail. “I think that your music journalist should err on the pristine side and not contribute to this venue. There is no shortage of good to be done in the world, and [he/she’d] best do [his/hers] elsewhere.”

On the other hand, Cohen saw no problem in using Kickstarter to raise money for his own journalism project.

The conclusion: it’s okay to be a worthy cause , but not to give to (or get involved with) one if you might someday cover it. 

Cohen’s answer is consistent with the SPJ Code of Ethics, which says journalists should “refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and shun secondary employment, political involvement, public office and service in community organizations if they compromise journalistic integrity.” Some journalists have taken this so far as to refuse to vote, seeing voting as a kind of political involvement that compromises their independence.

As community media, with most of our original coverage coming from citizen journalists who are involved in their/our community, we have a different standard. Instead of non-involvement, we emphasize transparency:

We care about fairness and transparency. Personal perspective is good—but please identify your relationship with the story. For example: if you are writing a restaurant review, and the restaurant is owned by your cousin, say so. If you worked on Representative X’s campaign in the past, disclose that.

We believe that being involved in the community does not necessarily “compromise journalistic integrity,” so long as there is full disclosure. It’s pretty clear that our standard is different from the non-involvement recommended in the SPJ code and by Cohen.

When Jay Gabler sent me the Village Voice article, I thought the question raised would be about the ethics of crowd-funding. Cohen used Kickstarter, and we have used Spot.Us to raise money to pay for reporting specific stories. On Spot.Us, any journalist can create a pitch, and Spot.Us collects pledge donations. When the story is completed, it is published under a Creative Commons license and the journalist is paid. The final result, according to Spot.Us: “Democracy flourishes, you feel good.”

Does getting a story paid for through Spot.Us (or Kickstarter) compromise journalistic independence? Do contributors have a voice in deciding how the story is reported? Does crowd-funding violate the ethical standard that says journalists “should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public’s right to know?”

Back in the day — when journalism meant full-time employment by a news media establishment — only the employer was paying for the story. Now, as citizen journalists, freelancers and, yes, bloggers, make up an increasingly large part of the news-o-sphere, paying for stories is a different kind of question. How much control or influence does the organization that writes the check have over the content of the article? Who pays for the news?

The TC Daily Planet, like many of the new media operations, is a non-profit organization. (For those readers who begin frothing at the mouth as they splutter about misuse of tax dollars — non-profit does NOT mean government funding.)

Non-profits get funding from many sources. We get money from individual donors and from foundations (and a little bit from advertising). Some other nonprofit media get funding from labor unions or political organizations.

Does paying for the news mean the power to decide what gets reported, and how it gets reported?

No — but also … yes.

The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics says journalists “should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public’s right to know.” At the Daily Planet, we maintain complete editorial independence, meaning that we report without regard to who funds us and without asking for permission or approval.

On the other hand, some funding is tied to specific coverage. For example, we have a grant to cover Central Corridor neighborhoods. The grant doesn’t specify what news we cover or how we cover it, but it means that we publish more stories about these neighborhoods than we would without the grant.

Taking money for reporting may compromise independence, but I don’t think that taking money from “crowd funding” or from foundations is any more compromising than taking a salary or payment for an article from the magazine, newspaper or web site that publishes an article.

In the old days, it was easy, or at least easier, to figure out who paid for the news — advertisers and the moguls who owned the media. In today’s new media, it may be harder to identify who’s paying for the news, but it’s still a question worth asking. What do you think about the intersection of reporting and payment and community involvement and influence? Take a look at the complete Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics and let us know what you think, in the comment section, or in an article of your own.