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
them: If a Christian group were donating to RNS and receiving positive coverage as a result, what would your reaction be?
To better understand this arrangement, TheBlaze also spoke with RNS’s editor-in-chief Kevin Eckstrom. He explained the news organization’s path from being owned by a for-profit corporation (Advanced Publications) to becoming a non-profit organization back in July 2011. This transformation created some intriguing opportunities for the traditional news group. Funding, of course, was at the center of the decision (RNS is now part of the Religion Newswriters Foundation umbrella) to engage Stiefel’s foundation.
“Part of the reason [we became a non-profit] was to be able to solicit and accept donor support [and] foundation support both for general corporations and specific projects,” Eckstrom explained.
“It just happened, honestly, that The Stiefel Foundation was the first one that we got. Our development director had known Todd and had worked with him in her previous career,” he added.
Eckstrom explains that the relationship between RNS and the SFF commenced a few years ago when the Religion Newswriters Association (also an entity under the Religion Newswriters Foundation), also received a donation from Stiefel. The association, which brings together religion reporters from across America, puts together helpful briefs about various faith groups.
At the time, Stiefel donated to help the organization put together an atheism source guide (this is a separate entity and gift from the funds that have been given to RNS). This was the parent organization’s first contact with the SFF — one that led to the current coverage agreement between RNS and Stiefel.
Eckstrom says that it was never RNS’s intention to go after funding for atheism coverage. He also noted that the news organization is seeking out other grant proposals that would help bolster coverage of evangelicals, Muslims and other specific faiths and subjects. The SFF arrangement, Eckstrom claims, isn’t much different from what National Public Radio (NPR) does to bring in funds on a specific topic (read about NPR’s funding strategies here).
Naturally, many would worry about the connections that exist between Stiefel and RNS. Eckstrom mirrored the atheist leader in claiming that the two have very little contact, specifically when it comes to content.
“We have fairly limited contact with the Steifel Foundation by design,” he explained. “When we were first talking, we were very clear and we remain very clear that all editorial decisions would be up to us — that we would not take direction from anyone including the funders in regards to what we could or could not cover.”
The editor also says that Stiefel’s goal in providing the funding was for “unbelievers to be treated with the same degree of coverage as believers.” That being said, Eckstrom reiterates that there are “firewalls” setup to prevent editorial influence from Stiefel and his foundation.
In his interview with TheBlaze, Eckstrom also voiced understanding of critics’ concerns that this arrangement appears to be a form of directly paying for coverage.
“I understand those concerns and I’m very sensitive to them and we have tried to think through this as clearly as we can,” he admits. “Yes, it’s different from the traditional models that journalism has operated under…those models, are in many ways, not sustainable anymore.”
Eckstrom also notes that this form of journalism does, indeed, raise more ethical questions than traditional forms would. That being said, he reiterates his hope that other faiths, too, will soon be represented by funders. Despite these issues, he overwhelmingly defends the model and, more specifically, Stiefel’s funding of RNS.
“You could make the argument that it‘s not all that different from a traditional newspaper that takes ads from Sally and Joe’s breakfast restaurant and then has to do [a story on] charges of salmonella poisoning there,” Eckstrom says.
While this is certainly valid, TheBlaze did explore how fervently RNS made Stiefel’s funding known to readers. A search conducted on the organization‘s web site didn’t show any notation that the $65,000 had been received by RNS. When asked about this, Eckstrom said that, over the past year, the outlet has gone through a major evolution in moving from a for-profit to a non-profit model.
“When we were getting off the ground, it was an absolute chaotic mess. We were moving offices, changing computer systems,” he said. “It was just sort of a gigantic whirlwind. I think this was one of the things that fell between the cracks — there was never a decision not to publicize.”
Eckstrom says that 80 to 90 percent of the atheism-themed stories on RNS come from Winston’s work (which is a direct result of the SFF funding), noting the relationship with Stiefel on the web site could be problematic.
“Not all of our atheist stories comes from Kimberly or the grant — we have staff writers here who are separate from the grant,” he explains. “If we had to label some, we’d have to label all — it seems kind of redundant and unnecessary.”
Despite worries that RNS’s coverage could be biased to leave out negative coverage about atheists, Eckstrom — though sensitive to these fears — dismisses them. In the end, he claims that the outlet is