Friday, July 29, 2011
Though The Times may be cashing in on its paywall, we know that many traditional news outlets appear to be circling the drain. What we don't know is what will fill the void should they disappear.
Among the contenders? Nonprofit news organizations. Dozens of them have cropped up in just the last five to six years. The hope is that shielded from the whims of the marketplace and of shareholders, they can focus on doing quality journalism.
Well, the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism recently examined 39 of these nonprofits to see if they've lived up to their promise. The sites were chosen because of their focus on state and national news, where there is a sizable news gap. Included were some very popular sites like ProPublica and The Texas Tribune that Pew deemed both balanced and transparent about their funding.
But there are also sites or groups of sites generally funded by a few prominent donors that were neither. Nine local sites that comprise the American independent news network received funding from George Soros and leaned liberal. Twelve sites that share the name "watchdog" are funded chiefly by the Sam Adams Alliance and leaned libertarian.
Amy Mitchell co-authored the Pew study. She says many of these sites reflect the politics of their principal funders.
Fifty-six percent, the ones that tended to have more ideology in their content were those that were primarily funded by one individual organization or foundation, so that the broader base of funders tends to equate to greater transparency, great breadth of views in the coverage.
Is there any way to know whether the kind of tilt that you've observed is any worse than the tilt that the commercial market tends to result in?
Well, I'd say two things. I'd say, first of all, this study is not set up as a comparison. But why we wanted to look at these sites is because they are a new kind of news product popping up around the country that citizens may well come across when they're searching for information about what's happening in their state.
They're also purporting, in many cases, to be replacing some of which has been lost by traditional reporting. And yet, there had not been any solid research-based examination of who these sites are, what they're producing and what we know about them, what we don't know about them.
So how to determine whether any given piece of content, any story is ideologically slanted?
The first thing we looked at was did they represent a range of viewpoints in the story. Second, we looked at the story theme, and was there an ideological element to that theme that was out of balance.
And then finally, for some stories that were investigative, who was the target of expose? And did the target tend to be affiliated more often with one political party or institution?
We looked at the content over the course of a month, took the results from those three elements and actually then created a scale and then created the spectrum of where sites fell within that.
Okay, so let's stipulate that a large chunk of these not-for-profits are in no way neutral politically. Have you drawn any conclusions as to whether that's good or bad?
No. What that then requires is a responsibility on a part of that organization to be open about where their money's coming from, what their mission is. That is what a citizen needs to know as they come across one of these news sites, and try to decide for themselves, if this is a place they want to turn to use for their information.
The Alaska Watchdog site, for example, has no About Us page. There's nothing there. And even though the design of the site, you know, is one that looks, in many cases, to be like one of its sibling watchdog sites, how is a citizen to know who they are or what they're doing?
So I have to ask you whether this study actually misses the point. We've long had journalism in this country, let's just say Reason magazine, a libertarian magazine, on the one side, and The Nation magazine, on the other. Both can be depended on to flog a certain point of view.
And yet, neither is associated with the kind of unfactual deceitful journalism that we sometimes see from political operatives disguised as journalists. So do we necessarily have to fear politically inflected journalism online anymore than offline, as long as it's undertaken with integrity?
Clearly, in our society we have all kinds of content that's floating about. You know, you look at some of the reporting on these sites and there's tremendous reporting there, but there's also something that's not transparent that's a part of the quality of that product, in the end.
One of the things that we include here are some guidelines, if you will, for citizens to be able to evaluate sites for themselves, to look at the level of staffing that they have. You know, the average staff size is three.
In about a third of the sites I think you had a single reporter doing most of the reporting. And those tended to be sites that had more ideological orientation to them.
Thank you very much.
Amy Mitchell is deputy director of the Pew Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism.