The ethics of non-profit investigative reporting

A new roundtable ethics report addresses the ethics of nonprofit investigative newsrooms, which have risen (and even gained prestige) in recent years as traditional newsrooms continue to cut their investigative coverage.

The report can be downloaded for free.

The roundtable was sponsored by the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, the University of Illinois Knight Chair in Investigative Reporting and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation in Oklahoma. The writers and editors were Stephen J.A. Ward, Andy Hall, Brant Houston, Christa Westerberg, and Robert Cribb.

In the report summary, Ward writes:

“Within the past few years, dozens of nonprofit investigative newsrooms have been created, often funded by foundations and other donors. . . With experimentation come new ethical questions. How can the new investigative newsroom avoid conflicts with funders? How transparent should non-profit ventures be about their donors? What ethical norms are appropriate for collaborative newsrooms employing many types of journalist? Where is the line between impartial reporting and advocacy?

“The report addresses one area of reconstruction – the ethics of nonprofit investigative newsrooms. Nonprofit journalism changes the way journalism is done; alters its economic base; and develops new linkages between journalists, funders, and audience. The new centers tend to be multi-media, collaborative newsrooms that bring together different types of journalist. The centers are smaller than most mainstream newsrooms and are reliant on a smaller number of funders, often one major foundation. Importantly for ethics, the distance between journalist and funder in the nonprofit newsroom is reduced.”

The roundtable identified the following major issues, and offered suggested best practices:

1. Who is an acceptable donor?
2. How avoid misunderstandings between centers and funders?
3. How transparent should centers be about funders?
4. How should centers protect editorial independence? How avoid conflicts of interest?
5. What sort of ethics is appropriate for this area of journalism?
6. If investigative centers advocate, what about objectivity?
7. If centers become part of national or international networks, what are the ethical implications?

“New Journalism – New Ethics”, the Second Annual Ethics Conference at the University of Wisconsin-Madison will be live streamed on Friday, April 30. Anyone can send questions/comments beforehand to the conference’s social media moderators.