April 26, 2010

Ethics report urges openness in nonprofit investigative centers

Nonprofit investigative newsrooms need to be open about their fundraising practices to protect the integrity of their journalism, according to a report released today by three journalism centers, including the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

“Ethics for the New Investigative Newsroom” (download PDF report) presents the recommendations that emerged from a roundtable of leaders in nonprofit journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in January.

The report stresses that nonprofit journalism centers must remain true to their goals, be transparent about who is funding them, establish guidelines for handling conflicts of interest and communicate with potential supporters to maintain public confidence in these emerging experiments in journalism.

The report is one of the first efforts to recommend “best practices” for nonprofit investigative newsrooms.

As mainstream news media struggle with cutbacks, journalists have looked to nonprofit models of journalism as an alternative way to maintain journalism in the public interest. Within the past few years, dozens of nonprofit investigative newsrooms have been created, often funded by a foundation and other donors.

The Jan. 29 roundtable was a collaboration of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and the College of Media at the University of Illinois. Additional support was provided by the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation of Oklahoma City.

The report will be discussed at a journalism ethics conference on Friday at UW-Madison, staged by the Center for Journalism Ethics. More information about the event is available at http://www.journalismethics.info.

The report puts forward ethical principles and best practices to help nonprofit journalists address key issues such as dealing with donors, avoiding conflicts of interest, and developing ethical guidelines for networks of nonprofit centers. The report also outlines legal considerations for nonprofit journalism and explores nonprofit journalism in Canada.

“This report breaks new ground on the ethical questions that confront these new important ventures,” said Stephen J.A. Ward, Burgess Professor of Journalism Ethics and director of the Center for Journalism Ethics. “We hope the report will prompt further discussion and further development of best practices.”

The problem of conflicts of interest and the danger of donor influence are not new to journalism, Ward said. But they arise in the new context of centers reliant on a limited number of donors, and where there is less distance between journalists and funders.

The roundtable was led by Ward, Andy Hall, executive director of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, and Brant Houston, Knight Chair in Investigative & Enterprise Reporting, at the University of Illinois.

Hall said he hopes the report will help nonprofit newsrooms protect their integrity while acquiring the financial support they need to carry out their work. Existing ethics codes, he said, lack detailed guidance on issues confronting nonprofit investigative centers, such as whether they can solicit money from foundations whose trustees are newsmakers.

Other roundtable participants were Robert Cribb, an investigative reporter for The Toronto Star; Margaret Wolf Freivogel, editor and co-founder of the St. Louis Beacon; Alden Loury, publisher of the The Chicago Reporter; and Christa Westerberg, attorney and vice president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council. Charles Lewis, founding editor of the Investigative Reporting Workshop, made a presentation to the roundtable via Skype.

Houston and Lewis are members of the Board of Directors of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. Westerberg serves as the Center’s pro bono legal counsel.

Update, April 26, 2010: The Columbia Journalism Review mentions this report in a blog post today, and says its upcoming May/June issue will weigh in with an editorial on the subject