Staying free from influence in non-profit journalism

Bilbo PoynterIs foundation-funded journalism free of ethical landmines? Absolutely not, writes Bilbo Poynter, executive director of the charitable Canadian Centre for Investigative Reporting. But with a clearly defined editorial process, ethical advisory boards and the drafting of “firewall statements,” he hopes to ensure editorial integrity.

When I read Stephen J. A. Ward’s recent column, “Journalism in the entrepreneurial age” (Sept. 15, 2009) about the serious ethical considerations for the practitioners of not-for-profit and pay-for journalism when raising funds I immediately wanted to reply. The questions he poses are ones I’ve been wrestling and reconciling with for the last two years as the executive director of the fledgling and newly charitable Canadian Centre for Investigative Reporting (CCIR). I didn’t reply right away however. Instead I took it as an opportunity to return to what for me has become a forever problem: How do we (the CCIR) ensure that we are both perceived, and in reality, free of the influence of financial backers over our editorial process?

Ward suggests that questions such as journalistic independence and conflicts of interest for these new models “will soon become the dominant theme in journalism ethics. These problems are brewing inside many of these new model outlets.” He is, of course, right.

Early on I approached journalists and nonprofit pioneers such as Charles Lewis, now with American University, but who nearly twenty years ago left a major network news producing gig to start the Center for Public Integrity about these issues, only to learn that the rules for acceptable sources of funding have been refined from when he started. At first, CPI accepted money from unions and businesses. “I didn’t have a clue about raising money or managing people; I was a line producer for 60 Minutes,” said Lewis in a recent conversation. CPI now lists where all their money comes from, along with sources of funding they won’t accept on their website, and is today one of Washington’s leading transparency watchdogs and one of the most successful nonprofit investigative outfits.

The CCIR is structured to meet all the legal requirements of a not-for-profit corporation and charity and so along with my position the CCIR also has a governing board of directors. As with other COO’s I have a responsibility to the board to meet or exceed our goals – including our budgetary goals – and on its face this means exploring every possibility. But the CCIR is not just any not-for-profit corporation; we are an investigative reporting organization whose mandate is to ferret out abuses of power by Canadian institutions and to educate Canadians on matters of clear public interest. So along with the directors we also have a board of advisors comprised of some of Canada’s most accomplished investigative reporters who, as the name suggests, advise us in areas such as ethics.

So the results of what we imaginatively called “Advisory Board Question No. 1” gave us some direction as to what the journalism community expected from us when soliciting funds, with the results largely anticipated. Overwhelmingly, the answers suggested that the CCIR should not accept money from government or corporations. CCIR advisor Sheila Coronel, founder of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, in answering our questions about where to solicit funds from also succinctly summed up the forever problem. “Foundations, individuals and universities are probably the safest. But you have to vet the foundations as well. There’s a big debate on whether to take from government bodies — it’s not acceptable in the US and in other countries, but given the history of public service broadcasting in Canada and Western Europe or Scandinavia, government funding does not necessarily impinge on journalistic independence. Political parties are a no-no and trade unions have interests to promote so this may pose difficulties. Ditto with corporations,” she said.

Even though what the CCIR is doing in Canada is essentially being done for the first time, the precedence, through the experiences of Lewis and others, for what is acceptable ethically for not-for-profit journalism organizations is decades old. Simply put, we are not starting from where the CPI began. In effect many of these decisions have already been made for us.

It isn’t just a question of optics either. In order for this to work, the CCIR needs to be able to determine through our own editorial process what stories we pursue and not be concerned whether our conclusions gel with a given funder’s values. But how? What does this process look like? Is it any different terrain from what a newspaper publisher navigates daily?

Though there are many variations on the theme, essentially it looks like this: A CCIR associate reporter approaches us with a story or series of stories he or she thinks are worth investigating. Say, for instance, a story on changes to Canada’s border policies as they relate to First Nations people. If we think there’s something there we then craft a proposal with a specific funder in mind (likely a foundation), and yes that funder will be known to us to have a broad interest in our subject matter. At other points the funding may already be in place to look at broad areas of interest (likely determined on a yearly basis) that we can dedicate to a specific story brought to us by an associate. At the same time we are also thinking of likely media partners to run CCIR stories, and in the case of a story like the one cited earlier, potential international partnerships. All of these scenarios include potential outside influences, and this is not unique to the not-for-profit model.

One way we hope to ensure our editorial integrity is by use of a “firewall statement” that will state that the CCIR must retain its editorial control over any stories we produce as it concerns funding. Essentially it works as an ethical contract between the organization and our funders, and we’re working on this statement now. I don’t anticipate that the introduction of such a document will cause a stampede of potential funders away from the CCIR. The real value for their investment comes from our ability to advance a story of significant public interest. Journalistically, our value ceases if we are seen to be a mouthpiece for any special interest.

Bilbo Poynter is executive director and founder of the Canadian Centre for Investigative Reporting. His reports have been seen and heard on CBC Radio,, and the Canadian Press. As a researcher, then associate producer with the CBC Investigative Unit he contributed to two award winning series. He was also the first Canadian to work for the Center for Investigative Reporting in California.