Religious News Service accepts funds to provide more atheist articles

As RNS admits taking money, is there any conflict of interest? Ethical questions? Should an "impartial" news agency provide additional coverage in exchange for much-needed cash?

BY: Billy Hallowell, editor, The Blaze, a daily news, information and opinion site where you'll find thousands of articles about politics faith, technology, business and more

 

Religion News Service (RNS), a prominent non-profit news organization focused on faith, is facing some of the same financial constraints that have led to the demise of numerous traditional media outlets. As time goes on and revenue becomes tougher to generate, newsrooms like RNS find themselves looking for ways to bring in much-needed funds. One of the more controversial models that the group has embraced is accepting funds from special interest groups.

In the case of RNS, The Stiefel Freethought Foundation (SFF), a hub for the atheist movement, has given $65,000 over the past two years to help fund coverage of non-believers and the so-called “freethought” movement. The organization, run by atheist millionaire Todd Stiefel (read our extensive profile about him here), has a very clear goal of organizing atheists, while spreading and advancing non-belief.

An announcement on the SFF web site explains the purpose of an initial $50,000 gift in 2011. Under a section entitled “Accomplishments in 2011,” the site reads, “SFF donated $50,000 to Religion News Service to bolster its coverage of freethinkers with a series of news, investigations, feature stories and photos.”

A separate notation under 2012 accomplishments touts an additional $15,000 given to RNS “to support the second year of its increased coverage of freethinkers.” The SFF made it known that the first year of funding was successful, with RNS purportedly penning 41 stories about the atheist movement.

There are a number of reasons why these gifts may cause controversy and angst, especially on the ethics front. Most mainstream and hard news-driven media outlets adhere to journalistic standards that, on the surface, would make this union suspect. While there are certainly biases to be accounted for, the overall notion is that general news outlets, at least in theory, are supposed to remain non-partisan and unaligned with slanted perspective and special interests.

While there’s no direct evidence that RNS violated these standards, taking money from a special interest group in the faith sphere causes one to wonder how rigorously — or honestly — the subject of atheism was explored. Furthermore, RNS is a wire service that numerous outlets (and big ones, at that) subscribe to. The stories that are written aren’t just published on the RNS web site; they make their way onto the Huffington Post, the Washington Post and other outlets that pay to publish them.

In an interview with TheBlaze, Stiefel discussed his foundation‘s gifts to RNS and said that there’s nothing that his group is doing that differs from what other religious groups currently engage in. While this may be the case, RNS has not yet received funding from any other special interest foundation or religious entity. Currently, the SFF is the only organization providing monies to the news group.

Stiefel reiterated that the purpose of the grants was to increase awareness of atheists and their increasingly-organized movement. He said that he plays no role in the ideological skew of the content.

 “I have absolutely zero control over what they write, what they choose to write about, what goes in [the articles] — nothing,” he told TheBlaze. “Even some of the stories that have been written, I certainly– there have been some stories that weren’t positive about the freethought movement and certain aspects of it.” He also made note of two articles that RNS wrote about the atheist movement that were negative in nature. TheBlaze located one of these articles from July 2012 entitled, “Do Atheists Have a Sexual Harassment Problem?”

Among the more interesting elements of the relationship between the SFF and RNS is that the funding that was granted has allowed for a reporter — Kimberly Winston — to focus more diligently on the atheist movement. Winston, who has been working freelance with RNS for quite some time, is now able to write much more regularly on the subject for the outlet.

While Stiefel claims he’s free to pitch ideas, he says the RNS team rarely uses them. Additionally, Stiefel told TheBlaze that Winston rarely uses him as a source for her stories about atheism.

“If there’s anything I find a little frustrating, they err on the side of not covering things I do or things I’m involved with,” Stiefel said of RNS. “I have to accept that they kind of ignore the things I’m involved with – it’s less likely to be covered.”

Regardless of the fact that he doesn’t have editorial control and that he is sometimes not relied upon for original sourcing, Stiefel says that he plans to continue funding RNS. But he’s hoping that other secular groups will join him in footing the bill.

As for critics who take issue with the funding model that RNS has chosen to embrace with the SFF, the atheist leader has a question for

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