Chalkbeat To Roll Out New Code Of Ethics

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An image from Chalkbeat’s spring networking event last week. The network just announced a new pilot Detroit bureau to go along with current coverage for New York, Indiana, Tennessee, and Colorado.

Given the many challenges facing nonprofit education news, at least one outlet is taking steps to clarify its expectations, standards and editorial practices:

Later this Spring, Chalkbeat plans to unveil a formal new “code of ethics” that will cover all its bureaus — a move that Columbia’s Nick Lemann recently espoused in The New Yorker.

“The ethics code doesn’t bring any changes to our work,” said co-founder Elizabeth Green via email. “We are just adopting a formal code for the first time.”

This is a step forward, to be sure — but will it be enough to guide journalists working under enormous pressure, satisfy critics, and avoid alienating funders?   Will other outlets and funders follow suit? 

Hopes are high – but the effort’s effect and success remain to be seen.

A FUNDAMENTAL CHALLENGE FOR NONPROFIT JOURNALISM

The challenges of nonprofit journalism — especially when it’s closely tied to a specific topic — have come up numerous times in recent months, including a New Yorker column from former Columbia J-School dean Nick Lemann calling for a new code of ethics and a Dodge Foundation Report questioning the viability of beat-specific nonprofit journalism funding:

“Funding content/beats is not a sustainable approach for news organizations or foundations — philanthropy can’t and won’t pay for journalist salaries indefinitely. Furthermore, funding content exposes both news organizations and foundations to criticism that foundations are deliberately influencing coverage.”

WHERE THINGS STAND 

Indeed, the current Chalkbeat About Us page states that “one of the biggest challenges facing serious journalism about public policy is finding long-term sustainable support that strengthens our editorial independence.”

The motivation for developing a new code, according to co-founder Philissa Cramer, was that the ever-growing organization would benefit from making clear and concrete some practices and decision rules that had previously been implemented ad hoc.

“Our realization was that we have great people, and we’re guided by internal code of ethics that we all feel, but as we’re getting bigger we want to have some consistency across the organization and a tool to train new people.”

In the past, according to Cramer, whatever expectations and ethics guidance the outlet has generated has been for internal purposes. “Internally, we’ve discussed making ethical choices,” said Cramer in a recent telephone interview. “But discussions of corrections and conflicts of interest impeding our impartiality  have all been very internal.”

So the outlet wanted to formalize its practices “anticipate questions or challenges that we haven’t yet had.”

DEPENDENCE ON OUTSIDE FUNDERS & SPONSORS

Like many nonprofit news outlets, Chalkbeat is largely dependent on grants and gifts. 

According to a 2015 report from the Knight Foundation, earned revenue made up just 10 percent of revenues in 2013.

But being a Chalkbeat funder doesn’t confer any special privileges when it comes to story assignment and reporting, according to Cramer. Funders understand “that’s a requirement for us.”

She said that she has not had any personal experiences with funders seeking to influence stories, but that it “might have happened with other people.”

That doesn’t mean that Chalkbeat doesn’t exchange ideas with funders. “I do know that our funders like to talk about the stuff we’re covering, and we get great ideas from them.”

DEVELOPING A NEW CODE

How much of a change the new code will bring remains to be seen. The site’s media kit already notes that “Chalkbeat does not accept grants or sponsorships unless the donor/sponsor agrees to respect our editorial independence.”

It goes on to explain that editorial independence means “when we make journalistic decisions, we consider only our mission and our editorial judgment — not the needs or desires of grant-makers or sponsors, and not advocacy goals.”

In coming up with a new code, the organization looked at as many models as they could find, according to Cramer, including those from the Texas Tribune, Marshall Project, SPJ, ProPublica, CIR, NPR, and EWA.

The new version will contain three main sections, including language about reporting issues (accuracy, corrections, and verifications), the importance of providing context and “acknowledging areas of uncertainty,” and avoiding conflicts of interest or giving favorable treatment to sponsors and donors.

Asked what the site’s funders think about the coming code of ethics, Cramer said “I don’t know.” The organization developed the code of ethics internally, and hasn’t shared it with funders yet. 

OTHER APPROACHES 

Editorial independence (and the credibility that comes with it) remains a top issue for nonprofit journalism.

Some other ideas that have been floated include ideologically diverse funders and regular self-assessment are unlikely to be effective, according to Peter Sussman, a co-author of the 1996 SPJ Code of Ethics:

“Having several funders does not inoculate a journalist against the difficulties I addressed of being funded so heavily and in such a targeted way by an entity that has a controversial project on which the recipient is reporting,” writes Sussman. “It’s not as if Eli Broad is a philanthropic underwriter of journalism nationally or even the Los Angeles Times generally… They are funding two education reporters at the same time as they are promoting a highly controversial school project.”

For ChalkbeatNY, Sussman’s concern would presumably mean not taking funding from organizations that are actively involved in running or promoting issues facing NYC schools — even if a diverse group could be gathered together.

[Sussman also adds that he’s been written by folks who don’t have much confidence in the integrity of this site, either, despite its diverse funding sources. “I mention it to underline my comment that money pollutes the whole process and even those involved may be unable to judge the extent to which they are bending their coverage in ways that won’t offend the sources of their funding.”]

As for some sort of periodic self-examination, Sussman is even more skeptical. “Again, I do not think that will remedy the kind of trust and credibility problems I addressed in my email… I don’t believe that such often-unconscious and small-scale decisions can be detected by a periodic review of the overall ‘balance of their coverage.'”

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT

Last week, the Chalkbeat board of directors approved the code of ethics.

Next, the outlet plans on using it internally for training purposes.

It will go live in April when Chalkbeat unveils a refreshed version of its site.

I’m told that Columbia’s Nick Lemann is working on a followup to his piece about codes of ethics for the New Yorker, which could come out any day now.

Related posts: A Code Of Ethics For Nonprofit Education Journalism?What The LA Times Should – And Shouldn’t – Do With Its Education CoverageNew Report Critiques Beat-Specific Foundation Funding For Journalism Nonprofits.

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.