Starting today, NPR is changing the always-sensitive ways in which its newsroom learns about and deals with current and potential funders: the foundations, individuals and companies whose grants, major donations and sponsorships provide much of the money to make NPR's work possible. The changes are intended to bring more transparency about funders to the public and avoid the kinds of slipups that raised serious concerns last May about NPR's coverage of the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal. (Our review found that the coverage itself was not swayed by a $100,000 grant from a non-profit advocacy group but that NPR's internal process to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest had broken down.)
The issue of who funds NPR's journalism and how much the public is told about it is of concern to many NPR listeners and readers, based on the communications we get. NPR gave my office an advance look at the new guidelines, which were drafted over the last nine months under the leadership of Mark Memmott, NPR's editor for standards and practices, and others. NPR's chief executive Jarl Mohn recently signed off on them. The guidelines are mostly focused on grants and major donations designed to support NPR's journalism, but also touch on sponsorships, which are sold to companies and organizations that want to highlight a product or service in on-air or online underwriting messages.
The guidelines are realistic about the role that financial support from donors plays in maintaining the NPR news operation. They also reiterate long-held journalistic principles, also made clear in NPR's ethics code, stating "we can't be bought. We are not 'journalists for hire.' We serve the public and follow the facts where they lead us."
NPR, like most serious news operations, has always maintained what is called a "firewall" between the newsroom and funding sources. That traditional concept is meant to express how walled off the newsroom is from funders—and it will continue at NPR. But Memmott described the newsroom guidelines as putting "a small window" in that firewall. As the six-page document that was made available to the newsroom this morning states: "Even though we want our journalists to be insulated from any 'dangerous or corrupting force,' transparency is one of our core principles."
The guidelines lay out the process by which NPR will approve new funders and what grants to support newsroom operations can and—perhaps more importantly— cannot require. (More on that below.) Much of that process is simply a codification of practices NPR already follows.
The biggest change—and it is a big one—involves who is responsible for making sure that listeners are told when an NPR funder is mentioned in an NPR report. Ensuring that these disclosures—that the subject of a report is also a funder of NPR— were made was previously the responsibility of the senior supervising producers for each NPR news show. Reporters and their immediate supervisors in most cases were not told who funded NPR's journalism.
Like anyone else, reporters might know about funders if they heard a funding credit on air or read the NPR annual report. But reporters, I can say from experience, generally do not want to know that information, so as to avoid thinking differently about their subjects. And there was no system in place to make sure they were aware, precisely because, as Memmott told me last May, the newsroom was to be shielded from any perceived pressure to sway its reporting. As a result, the process occasionally broke down and some public disclosures went missing.
The new guidelines are the precise opposite; they make reporters and editors responsible for keeping up-to-date with the monthly lists of funders and adding any needed disclosures to their reports. (More-senior editors will serve as a backstop.) In addition, the guidelines say, "NPR journalists will also be expected to ask sources (such as academics who may be funded by grants from foundations) about the financial support they (or the organizations they work for) receive. We would disclose, for example, that 'Prof. John Doe's study was funded by the Acme Foundation' and if Acme had also given NPR financial support, we would disclose that connection."
The guidelines state that disclosures will be included "in almost all cases. Only if the news is far removed from the reason NPR is receiving the support (because a foundation, for example, supports a wide variety of different organizations) might we forego disclosure. We will err on the side of too much, not too little, disclosure."
Reasons for the Change
Why is NPR now changing who is responsible for ensuring the disclosures are made? Memmott told me that over time he became convinced that the task of isolating the newsroom from information about funders "was getting kind of ridiculous." Reporters could know who the funders were if they listened to funding credits or read the annual reports, he said, "but we were making it harder for them than necessary to find out," even as the public expected transparency.
As the guidelines state: "Briefing our journalists about what organizations and which individuals are giving us support puts the newsroom in a better position to relay that information to the public."
"I was trying to put myself in their shoes," Memmott added to me: If a reporter's name is on a story, making them ultimately responsible for the disclosure, then "don't hide that information" from them. He said he expects reporters to continue to be professional and that they will not let the information that someone they interview is a funder (or has been funded by an NPR funder) sway the reporting.
The current donor list, by the way, which NPR shared with my office, includes 123 funders, of which 44 give money for general operations but not any specific area of coverage. Another 61 fund dedicated coverage areas, such as education reporting and the Hidden Brain podcast, while 18 funders give grants for both general operating expenses and specific coverage areas. Newsroom staff will also be able to see the separate list of those who are currently sponsoring programs or digital offerings.
The lists will be updated internally each month but will not be made public. However, a master list of donors and sponsors from each fiscal year will be available with the public release of each annual report, as has been mostly the practice in recent years, with some years including more detailed information than others. (The FY2016 report is expected to be posted in coming weeks at NPR.org.)
The guidelines note that each annual report will list "our philanthropic, corporate and major individual financial supporters," and "identify the general areas that our funders support," if the donations are not for general operating expenses.
The internal guidelines lay out in detail how funders will be approved and what they cannot do. Most clearly, the document says, "NPR doesn't accept money to do stories that others want done. NPR solicits and accepts support to do the stories that its journalists want to do."
The updated process includes monthly meetings and more advance conversations between the newsroom and the development office responsible for finding funders, "to avoid grants being solicited that put the newsroom in an uncomfortable position," Memmott said. (That could include funders such as foundations that focus solely on one specific issue, because accepting money from them has the potential to appear that "NPR has been paid to cover that topic." Those funders will get extra scrutiny before NPR agrees to take their money.)
The language for each grant will be very clear, if it wasn't already, that the newsroom retains editorial judgment in all cases. Funders interested in supporting specific areas of coverage cannot get assurances on how many stories will be produced during the duration of the grant (although proposals can include an expected range of number of stories, if newsroom leaders agree), or what specific stories will be covered. Funders will be told that breaking news might necessitate a change in plans.
Unrelated to the new guidelines, another change is coming for how NPR handles conversations between the newsroom and the development office about potential funders. NPR is creating a managing editor-level position in the newsroom to oversee these conversations, Michael Oreskes, NPR's top news executive, told me.
The change is designed to create "more rigorous, disciplined and high-level management of the conversation between the revenue department and the news department," Oreskes said, by limiting the number of people in the newsroom who take part in discussions with the development and sponsorship departments about funding NPR's journalism. "I wanted there to be a much clearer delineation of the lines and chain of command," he said.
The executive is expected to be in place within a month, Oreskes said.
My take on these changes is mixed. Some NPR consumers are already very inclined to see evidence of funders meddling in NPR content and simply do not believe that NPR reporters are not well aware of the names of the funders. These new guidelines, I'm guessing, will make them even more suspicious.
But these skeptics are not the majority of NPR's audience by any means (if the volume of mail we get is any indication). Nor has my office seen evidence that any funder has influenced any NPR journalism in my two years in this post.
Memmott acknowledged that what he's trying to do is walk a fine line, balancing the concepts of an "old-fashioned firewall" and a real need for transparency. "We want the journalists to have the information they need but not be affected by it," he said.
The old process, with the firewall firmly in place, did not work last year in the case of the grant-funded coverage of the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal—needed disclosures were not made. If cutting a small "window" in the firewall ensures that listeners also get the transparency they are due while still guarding the independence of NPR's newsroom, I am willing to give it a chance to work.