July 19, 2011
Bias in Nonprofit News: Do American Campaign Academy and Big Mama Rag make any sense at all?
From the "so what?" department, the Pew Research Center for Excellence in Journalism reports in a new study that most nonprofit news organizations have a distinct ideological bent one way or the other, left or right. Which is really to say that most news people, even those who work for good rather than profit, have an opinion. Or maybe my own cynical bent is showing. Anyway, according to the study, almost 60% of the nonprofit news organizations had an identifiable ideological philosophy. Here is a summary of the major findings:
Among the findings:
- The most ideological sites were Group Sites, those that belonged to one of two families organized by a sole or primary funder. One was a family of nine liberal sites that all have the word "Independent" in their names, funded chiefly by the American Independent News Network, which itself is funded by a variety of individuals and foundations, including the Open Society Foundations founded and chaired by George Soros. The other was a group of 12 conservative sites that share the name "Watchdog" and are funded chiefly by the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity, which was launched in part by a libertarian group called the Sam Adams Alliance.
- The least ideological in their content were sites that operated entirely on their own and had multiple funding sources and revenue streams, sites such as The Texas Tribune (which lists 12 foundations among its dozens of "founding investors," as well as 64 corporate sponsors and hundreds of individual donors, and generates revenue from events and other revenue devices) and Connecticut Mirror (which lists 10 supporting foundations). These sites also tended to be more transparent and generate a relatively high volume of content.
- One striking feature across many of the news sites studied was that while they may have been forthcoming about who their funders were, often the funders themselves were much less clear about their own sources of income. This effectively made the first level of transparency incomplete and shielded the actual financing behind the news site. The chief funders listed for nearly two-thirds of the sites studied-28 in all-did not disclose where their money came from.
- Reporting resources in this emerging category of news operations tended to be quite limited. All the sites in the study had some staff and all produced original content at least weekly. The median was eight stories per week, but some averaged as few as one or two. And, of the 46 sites studied, the median reporting and editorial staff numbered just three people. At 18 sites-more than a third of those studied-just one or two people authored all of the stories analyzed.
- Whether by design or due to resource limitations, the majority of news stories on these sites presented a narrow range of perspectives on the topics covered. Overall, half of the news stories studied (50%) offered just a single point of view on controversial issues. Just 2% of stories contained more than two points of view.
- The topics covered on these sites often correlated with the political orientation of the sites and their backers. The more liberal-oriented American Independent News sites, for instance, heavily favored stories about the environment and organized labor, topics that did not appear among the most-covered for other groups of sites. The more conservative Watchdog.org sites, on the other hand, often set their focus on the government system itself, drawing attention to stories of inefficiency and waste.
So, what do these findings mean? Should we turn the holdings of the American Campaign Academy or Big Mama Rag loose on these nonprofits? Should we be surprised or even concerned? It seems to me that nonprofits inevitably have an ideological bent, thus exposing the great irony of cases implying that nonprofits should be unbiased; in other words devoid of human influnce. I don't think a non-ideological organization, profit or nonprofit, exists in nature. The study, as far as I have read, does not report the reactions of those news organizations perjoratively labeled as "ideological." but I bet most of them would disagree that they are presenting "narrow" perspectives. They are just as likely to conclude that the study author's have an ideological bent. Ideology, I think, is in the eye of the beholder.
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