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As philanthropists increasingly fill in the funding gaps at news organizations—a role that is almost certain to expand in the media downturn following the coronavirus pandemic—an underexamined worry is how this will affect the ways newsrooms report on their benefactors. Nowhere does this concern loom larger than with the Gates Foundation, a leading donor to newsrooms and a frequent subject of favorable news coverage.

I recently examined nearly twenty thousand charitable grants the Gates Foundation had made through the end of June and found more than $250 million going toward journalism. Recipients included news operations like the BBC, NBC, Al Jazeera, ProPublica, National Journal, The Guardian, Univision, Medium, the Financial Times, The Atlantic, the Texas Tribune, Gannett, Washington Monthly, Le Monde, and the Center for Investigative Reporting; charitable organizations affiliated with news outlets, like BBC Media Action and the New York Times’ Neediest Cases Fund; media companies such as Participant, whose documentary Waiting for “Superman” supports Gates’s agenda on charter schools; journalistic organizations such as the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, the National Press Foundation, and the International Center for Journalists; and a variety of other groups creating news content or working on journalism, such as the Leo Burnett Company, an ad agency that Gates commissioned to create a “news site” to promote the success of aid groups. In some cases, recipients say they distributed part of the funding as subgrants to other journalistic organizations—which makes it difficult to see the full picture of Gates’s funding into the fourth estate. 

The foundation even helped fund a 2016 report from the American Press Institute that was used to develop guidelines on how newsrooms can maintain editorial independence from philanthropic funders.

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