“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
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 ofdonations 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 receivingfrom 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.