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


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committed to churning out “fair” and “balanced” coverage and that it “doesn’t take sides.”

“We don’t have a dog in any of these fights,” he says, referring to the faith world.

Certainly, RNS does a stellar job informing readers about the many attributes of the faith sphere. That being said — and this doesn’t just go for RNS — it’s perfectly natural to wonder whether negative coverage would lead a funder to pull its support. In the end, funding is something that can essentially be held over a group’s head and, subsequently, inadvertently impact coverage.

In the end, this is a consideration that is likely difficult for the outlet, which has proven itself committed to journalistic integrity, to balance.

Eckstrom did note that some of the criticism RNS may receive from this funding news could be rooted in the negative views that many have of atheism and atheists, in particular.

“Part of the reason why this particular one gets questions is because we’re dealing with atheist [movement],” he says. “I really question if we received a grant from a Presbyterian foundation, would people be asking the same questions?”

TheBlaze reached out to Kelly McBride of The Poynter Institute — a journalism ethics organization — to ask about the standards surrounding the relationship between RNS and the SFF. McBride explains that this model of accepting donations for content isn’t uncommon. However, she notes that this must be done with “total independence over what [the outlet can] do with the money.”

“Ethically, I think in a journalistic sense you can totally do that as long as you maintain complete editorial control over the product,” McBride explains. “So, you don’t want to get into a situation where your donor is suggesting news stories — [or] is suggesting sources.”

In the case of RNS, Stiefel did admit to suggesting stories and sources, but it was in a limited capacity that these suggestions were acted upon. When it comes to the ethics of covering the negative aspects that could be associated with a funder, McBride said that journalistic integrity should trump all else.

“As a journalism organization, you are only as good as the journalists who [are] running newsrooms,” she continues. “Real journalists will make the tough call — we will take the fundraising hit if it comes to that.”

Journalism is costly and, considering this, it’s not uncommon that foundations and groups with an agenda would provide funding to help prop up newsrooms, while also ensuring that specific subject matter gets coverage.

While RNS isn’t necessarily violating journalistic standards, on the transparency front, McBride notes that the outlet should probably be upfront that it’s receiving funds from the SFF. She says “it makes sense to be really transparent” and to create a place on the news group’s web site where its policies and funding information is available.

“The whole non-profit news world is really growing up before our eyes,” she says. “It doesn‘t surprise me that they haven’t thought through all the disclosure and transparency.”

What do you think? Should RNS — or any outlet for that matter — be taking funding from foundations with an agenda? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section, below.

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