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Media: Foundation-Funded Journalism Vs. "Advocacy" Journalism

Test boxes cc flickr DaveBleasdaleAs more and more education journalism is being funded by nonprofit philanthropies (rather than subscribers or advertisers), more and more people seem to be thinking and writing about the possible implications.

The obvious upside is that there's more coverage, much of it quite good.  EdSource Today, Chalkbeat, Hechinger, and the expanded Southern California Public Radio education team come to mind. Foundations that fund education coverage of various kinds include Gates, Kresge, Wallace, Ford, and Walton.

The challenge -- a new version of a challenge that's long existed in journalism -- is to make sure that funding sources don't determine coverage choices.

What to do about "advocacy journalism" is a somewhat newer, tougher issue. 

The challenges of foundation-funded education journalism are the main focus of a recent Chronicle of Higher Ed story (To Shape the National Conversation, Gates and Lumina Support Journalism), focusing on foundation-funded education journalism produced by The Washington Monthly, NBC News, the Hechinger Institute, freelancer Anya Kamenetz, and the Chronicle itself. 

It's interesting to note that foundation funders apparently don't have transparency and  conduct guidelines that are part of most journalistic operations -- an issue noted in this piece (Impartiality, Journalism, and Philanthropy).  

Foundation-funded or otherwise, journalism is also seeing lots more of what NYT media critic David Carr calls "advocacy journalism," which brings its own strengths and weaknesses.  As Carr describes in a recent column (Journalism, Even When It’s Tilted) advocacy journalism can be quite good -- Glenn Greenwald is a great example -- and most journalists have viewpoints whether they hide them or not.  

But advocacy journalism also leaves what seems like a greater possibility for skewed coverage (leaving out counter-examples) and confused readers (who might think they're reading "straight" news journalism). Strong views without a strong editor can get in the way of keeping an open mind and presenting issues in a careful, nuanced way.  Slate, the Atlantic Education page, Salon, and other outlets seem like they're running pieces by advocates who are journalists -- not always clearly labeled as such from the start.

There's no easy solutions here -- or neat answers.  Journalism takes money to produce.  Journalists have viewpoints -- and some of the most hard-working and brilliant have the strongest views.   See Lynnell Hancock's revisiting of Common Ground (below) for more on the importance of journalists keeping and open mind.) Or think about how Andrew Sullivan subtitles his Daily Dish with the motto "Biased and balanced."  


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