Some journalists and news organizations took government funding to produce work: is that a problem?

*Update: The news department of Global Television never took CIDA cash, according to senior vice president Troy Reeb. 

In response to the original J-Source article, Reeb says "it would clearly be a violation of our principles and practices to do that."

J-Source originally reported that Global received CIDA cash to finance programming. According to a government database, over $150,000 went to documentaries that would later air on Global Television.

*Update: The news department of Global Television never took CIDA cash, according to senior vice president Troy Reeb. 

In response to the original J-Source article, Reeb says "it would clearly be a violation of our principles and practices to do that."

J-Source originally reported that Global received CIDA cash to finance programming. According to a government database, over $150,000 went to documentaries that would later air on Global Television.

But Reeb notes that the money went to independent documentaries, not news programming. "The entire business model for independent documentary producers is one built around getting government grants," says Reeb. He notes a previous CRTC rule that forced news channels to air informational programming that was not run by the news department, like documentaries.

"It never fell under the aupicious of news programming," he says.

Yet one of the CIDA grants went to Becoming Human Pictures Inc, which produced a one-hour film for the network's former newsmagazine show, Global Currents — hosted by Global News anchor Kevin Newman.

Reeb highlights that Global News is not responsible for the content of those documentaries, and that all of them were required to state where their funding came from.

"Transparency is the key," says Reeb.

While Global may not have aired material on its news side, rival station CTV used CIDA-funded material during its newscasts. J-Source is still waiting on Kim Brunhuber, the journalist who produced that content on CIDA's dime.

By Justin Ling

As newsrooms shrink, budgets contract and reporting jobs get axed, journalism is desperately looking for its next stream of funding.

But what if that source of cash flow is from the Canadian government?

That ethical quandary appeared to fly under the radar at many news organizations when they received lucrative grants from the Canadian International Development Agency to cover the cost of sending journalists abroad to report on CIDA programs.

The controversial and ethically questionable practice was uncovered last month by fledgling parliamentary news site Blacklock's Reporter, which uncovered that CIDA, for years, had funnelled money to news organizations like Le Devoir, Radio-Canada, the Walrus, Global*, CTV, and Transcontinental.

From around 2005 to 2008, when the Harper government put the kibosh on the practice, Canada's development agency shelled out more than $47.5 million for "promotion of development awareness." At least $3.5 million from that went directly towards funding news articles, photo-essays, documentaries, film series and broadcast news reports on CIDA projects, all with carriage in mainstream, independent channels. Hundreds of thousands more went to documentaries being made by independent companies where the broadcast outlet was not made clear in the CIDA project briefs. Another chunk of that money went to paying for articles in children's magazines, and trade journals for various sectors. The rest of the funding went to public outreach, education and capacity building projects.

All of this was hidden in plain sight in the annals of the CIDA website, in databases of the development agency's funding projects and tendered contracts, some of which are available on the site's open data initiative.

The money went to achieving such goals as “[reminding] readers of the central role that Afghanistan plays in CIDA’s international assistance program,” according to a description of a contract with Le Devoir on the department's Project Browser website.

A CIDA spokesperson told J-Source that no CIDA program "paid directly for journalists’ salaries," but instead "supported media activities that had as goal the promotion of development awareness with the Canadian public." There was no clarification of what that means.

The spokesperson did note that the program was axed in 2010, as part of a "modernizing" effort to focus more on direct aid, but multiyear funding agreements carried on past that point. The last drops of funding from the department ended this February, as a $50,000 bursary program with the Fédération professionnelle des journalistes du Québec drew to a close.

David Swick, professor of ethics in the University of King's College journalism program, gives out a gold star for the "good journalism" of Blacklock's, and draws a thick red line under the questionable actions of the outlets who took the CIDA money.

"It is never a good idea for a journalist to take a 'freebee' from anybody," says Swick. "We should not give in to this temptation."

Newsrooms often have codes of ethics and conduct that stop them from accepting government cash to do reporting. The CBC code of conduct is perhaps the most categorical in its rules on having expenses covered. English CBC itself did not take CIDA funds but it did run a documentary produced by an independent company on The Nature of Things that received a $155,000 government grant. Its French counterpart took $170,000 from CIDA to send youth abroad to report on development issues worldwide. Because the money did not cover any staff expenses, Radio-Canada spokesperson Marc Pichette says it complies with the corporation’s standards and ethics.

CBC's policy reads that "production personnel will not accept offers of free travel or accommodation from outside organizations or individuals to facilitate the gathering of program, news or research material." It goes on to say that special exemptions must receive approval. Radio-Canada's show produced alongside CIDA, Radiomonde, made very clear the federal government's involvement. Two other documentaries that aired on Radio-Canada were funded by CIDA.

Many of the contributions from CIDA for media — mostly under the Mass Media Initiative — went to funding documentary films that would later appear on various TV networks or film festivals, according to the program descriptions on the CIDA database. These documentaries — funded in part or in whole by CIDA — made it onto Global, CTV, TV5, History Television, ARTV, Vision, TVO, OMNI, Tele-Quebec, MTV, Canal D, City TV, the Discovery Channel, TVA, and a spate of provincial stations.

The ethicality of using third-party money to finance reporting is an old question for travel writers, Swick says, noting that the Toronto Star has begun the practice of listing where all the funding for a travel feature comes from. During this CIDA program, Radio-Canada clearly indicated that government funding contributed to their programs.

Rene Dupuis, a spokesperson from CTV, said that one documentary that aired on the station "clearly credited that the program had been produced with the support of the Government of Canada through CIDA." Yet he says that CTV has no records of running reports from Kim Brunhuber, who is listed as having received nearly $13, 000 to produce "six television news pieces that highlight the contribution of Canadians to several unique development projects." The reports were to be used on local CTV stations, CTV Newsnet, and Good Morning Canada, says the description. It's unclear if CIDA's involvement in those news pieces was advertised. Brunhuber did not return requests for comment by J-Source or Blacklock's.

While transparency is good, says Swick, it doesn't abrogate the initial problem.

"Journalists need to protect their independence," he says. "But if you do make that unfortunate decision, you do have to be transparent."

Jonathan Montpetit was covering the Afghan war in 2009 for the Canadian Press, and says he came across journalists there on the government dime.

"My understanding of these junkets is that Ottawa picked up the tab for the flight over as well as costs in-theatre, then basically gave the journos a highlight tour of what Canada was doing in Afghanistan.

While Montpetit noted that, especially in a war zone, journalists are bound to do a level of self-censorship —between covering the soldiers tasked with protecting your life and having to work with the government department that manages your entire stay there — there is an unquestionable value in the government's involvement. He says Foreign Affairs and Defence play vital roles in providing transport throughout the country, setting up interviews, and managing the flow of information to those embedded journalists.

"I think government agencies like CIDA do have a role to play in enabling journalists to report on the activities that form part of its mission,” he says.“Canadian citizens clearly have a right to understand how the government is spending its money."

Montpetit argues media organizations have to be categorical in the way in which they keep editorial control from the government, who — left to its own devices — will always try to skew a story.

"It is a media organization’s responsibility to realize what they’re getting involved in. It is up to them to say no. And if there is blame to be assigned it is squarely with those who didn’t."