Diverse Funding & Self-Assessment Might Improve Education Coverage

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Last week I wrote a blog post titled What The LA Times Should – And Shouldn’t – Do With Its Education Coverage.

In it I mentioned an email that had been written by a veteran former journalist named Peter Sussman, but at the time had neglected to reach out to him for any additional thoughts he might have.

Sussman and I emailed on Friday afternoon, and his email to me was thought-provoking enough to prompt this followup. Though I don’t think we end up in quite the same place, he brings up some important issues regarding sole-source funders (vs. diversification) and about the subconscious effects of funders on beat reporters.  Some possible ways of addressing these issues include diversifying funding sources and some sort of regular self-examination by news outlets about the balance of their coverage. 

Sussman — who was the the principal co-author of the 1996 SPJ Code of Ethics, served on SPJ’s Ethics Committee for 15 years and won the Wells Key (SJP’s highest honor) — has as a main thesis that “journalistic credibility is hard-won (and increasingly suspect for many reasons), and funding from the subjects of news stories and editorials does indeed jeopardize it.”

That seems straightforward enough, and it seems clear that news outlets play a difficult if not dangerous game taking money from outside organizations with vested interests in the topics they’re covering. That’s always been the case, to some extent, with advertising-based journalism, but as it turns out there are key differences.

As for the LA Times situation in particular, Sussman writes that he believes that “the issues you raise are indeed difficult, and it seems to me that the devil is often in the details.”

For example, a Poetry Foundation grant to PBS creates possible distortions in coverage but the LA Times is taking foundation funding from philanthropies “with specific agendas and programs.” As he writes, “The mere fact of the funding pollutes the entire process when the funder is a participant as well.”

Sussman also notes that while the general public may not understand the distinctions between the editorial page staff and the newsroom staff but that the separation between them “can at times be more permeable than we like to think.”

However, Sussman’s most persuasive — and troubling — observation is that the interaction of funding and influence may be real but unobservable, well below any subterfuge or blatant slant:

“It seems to me that the influence of funding and the issues of bias that it raises are more subtle than we usually assume — so subtle that the reporters and editors involved may not be able to discern them. They involve macro decisions — how important you think a story is and whether you should cover it at all — and micro decisions such as why a particular detail caught your eye and ended up in a story or editorial. I’m not sure a reporter or editor could even discern accurately whether they were avoiding a story to prove that they aren’t in a funder’s pocket.” 

I think that’s a fair enough observation.  There are lots of things on reporters and editors’ minds, of course: how sources and subjects might react to a piece and what the competition might be writing. Reporters and editors can try and put these things and outside funding out of their minds all they want. The exercise is never completely effective.

But that doesn’t mean that all is lost, or that foundation funding should be eliminated. Given the limits on reading reporters’ minds or unconscious biases, the only real response that I can imagine is for newsrooms or outside observers to track on outlet’s coverage on a regular, cumulative basis to make sure that it doesn’t lean too much one way or the other.

I’m not entirely sure how stories would be coded but some sort of monthly or annual lookback could provide some useful feedback for editors and reporters, roughly along the lines of the departmental, schoolwide, and individual GPA feedback reports that I used to get as a teacher.  Some of the things that education teams could look at could include: What’s the mix of investigative vs. progress-based stories? What’s the mix of reporting on district and charter schools? What’s the mix of those being quoted or having their reports or events covered? Etc. 

Another strategy to prevent against undue influence (and the appearance of undue influence) would be for the LA Times and other foundation-funded outlets to try secure grants from an ideological range of philanthropies. That’s what EdWeek, Hechinger Report, and Chalkbeat have done, to varying degrees of success.

Having a range of funders is no miracle cure, either, as I can well attest. But it’s one of the things that makes this site credible. It’s one of the things that made advertiser-supported journalism work for several decades: a diversified set of funding sources protects against any single funder having too much influence.

Related posts: What The LA Times Education Team Should – & Shouldn’t – Do 

Alexander Russo

Alexander Russo is a freelance education writer who has created several long-running blogs such as the national news site This Week In Education, District 299 (about Chicago schools), and LA School Report. He can be reached on Twitter at @alexanderrusso, on Facebook, or directly at alexanderrusso@gmail.com.