Transparency key to investigative news ethics
If credibility is the end goal of the modern investigative newsroom, transparency is the means. That’s the consensus of the “Ethics for the New Investigative Newsroom” panel, which discussed a recent report on emerging ethical conflicts that are challenging investigative organizations.
Robert Gutsche Jr of the new Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism, said his forming group has been turning to other nonprofits, including the Wisconsin Center and the Center for Public Integrity to set its own standards for openness. “We want to be sure that information our reporting, our fact-checking and our donations are accessible to the public,” Gutsche says. “If this is what we are demanding from public officials, institutions, and the general public, then we should ask the same of ourselves.”
Maintaining ethical practices is further complicated as non-profit news centers collaborate with other news organizations with differing agendas and standards.
“Networks bring challenges,” says Brant Houston, Knight Chair in Investigative and Enterprise Reporting at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. “Ethics at the Networks need to have as much transparency in funding and spending as possible. It all comes down to credibility. If you can’t be transparent about your donors, say why.”
Transparency alone won’t guarantee solid ethical practices. Audience participants questioned how all the talk about transparency translates into action.
Burgess Professor of Journalism Ethics at UW-Madison Stephen Ward cautions that transparency is not a substitute for good journalism, but merely a means by which an organization helps achieve ethical practices.
Another hot topic for non-profits is the baggage that comes along with donor money. Non-profit journalism organizations rely heavily on foundations and private donors—many of whom have some sort of agenda that is inherently different from that of the news organization.
Founder of the Center for Public Integrity Charles Lewis noted in his session this morning that only 5 of 30 non-profit journalism centers he studied gave details of their operating budgets. The non-profit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism lists its major donors and funding sources on its website. Executive Director Andy Hall said the Center recently decided not to accept money from anonymous sources or political parties.
Media consultant Carol Toussaint pointed out that while non-profit investigative news centers are generally new to the business, funders are not. She advised journalists that foundations will continue to look critically at their recipients’ successes, including how well they diversify their funding to become more self-sufficient.
-Jacob Kushner, Reporter, Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism