Pew study finds news from non-profit sites can have its own kind of bias

The Baltimore Sun

Just because news and information comes from a non-profit operation rather than corporately-owned one doesn’t mean it is ideologically-free, disinterested and independent reporting that citizens can automatically trust.

Quite the contrary, some of the non-profit “news” operations that have sprung up as traditional news outlets have disappeared in recent years are funded by entities with an ideological agenda that is reflected in the informational content on the site.

Those are among the most important findings of an illuminating study of non-profit news published Monday by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

The one thing I learned in my Ph.D. research is that you should read the whole study, especially the explanation of methodology, for yourself. And you can do that at the project’s website here. I urge you to do so, because the ideological findings that I am focusing on are the ones that interest me. There are a host of different findings here on non-profit news that I am sure will be of interest to other analysts.

Based on my reading of what was made available to me in advance of publication, I would say that overall, the findings are somewhat tentative in a number of cases, and the sample certainly could have been bigger. But this is the first major study of non-profit news sites that I know of, and this exploration of the ideological bias of some of them is invaluable.

I don’t use the word “invaluable” lightly. What I find so important about this study is the way its data questions a popular narrative constructed and sold primarily by voices from the left about news from entities like CNN, The New York Times or the Baltimore Sun being somehow unreliable and biased because it comes from corporately owned newsrooms, while anything produced by a non-profit operation is automatically more trustworthy.

If you ever listened to a media critique from Bill Moyers or Keith Olbermann, you have heard this argument.

Here are the opening words of this study. Judge for yourself. And note especially the characterization by the Pew study of the kinds of outlets that are funded by George Soros. As many on the right have long claimed, there is a liberal ideological orientation to some of those sites, according to this study. In fact, they are among the most ideological sites, according to this data. (The mention of the kinds of sites funded by a group that is in turn funded by Soros appears after the first bullet under “findings” below.)

A new phenomenon has emerged in journalism in recent years—the era of non-profit news.

As traditional newsrooms have shrunk, a group of institutions and funders motivated by something other than profit are entering the journalism arena. This distinguishes them from the commercial news institutions that dominated the 20th century, whose primary sources of revenue—advertising and circulation—were self-evident.

Who are these new players in journalism? Are these sites delivering, as they generally purport to be, independent and disinterested news reporting? Or are some of them more political and ideological in their reporting? How can audiences assess this for themselves? In short, what role are these operations playing in the changing ecosystem of news?

A new study by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism offers a detailed look at a portion of this new cohort of news providers—sites that cover state and national news. The study examines some four dozen sites across the country, all of them launched in 2005 or later, that offer coverage beyond the local level to state and national news.

That group includes national news sites such as Pulitzer Prize-winning ProPublica, which receives money from more than a dozen foundations and has a staff of more than 30. It also includes lesser-known news sites such as Missouri News Horizon, whose funding is less clear and covers Missouri state government with a staff of three journalists. The study analyzes the funding, transparency and organizational structure of these sites, and also the nature of their news coverage.

 (There is a larger universe of community-level non-profit news operations perhaps even more diverse in nature. That group is beyond the scope of this analysis, but does bear further study.)

The 46 national- and state-level news sites examined offered a wide range of styles and approaches, but roughly half, the study found, produced news coverage that was clearly ideological in nature.

In general, the more ideological sites tended to be funded mostly or entirely by one parent organization—though that parent group may have various contributors. They tended to be less transparent about who they are and where their funding comes from. And they tended to produce less content—in some cases generating one or two stories per week produced by a single staffer.

... The non-profit sites studied, 39 in all, fell naturally into three basic types based on the nature of their funding and the level of independence of their organizations. There were Group Sites, those that were part of formal families organized by a single parent or funder. There were Associated Sites, those that shared content with each other but otherwise operated independently and for the most part had different funders from one another. There were Individual Multi-Funder Sites, which each had multiple funding sources and revenue streams and operated entirely independently. In addition, there were seven Commercial Sites that fit all the other criteria of the study except that they operated as for-profit concerns, and as such offered a basis of comparison. (There were also two sites that were Outliers in that they were independent sites but had a few funders, and thus did not fit the categories above.)

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 sites, on the other hand, often set their focus on the government system itself, drawing attention to stories of inefficiency and waste.

This study is a first attempt to empirically evaluate a new sphere in journalism, but it is only a beginning and only a part of that sphere. …

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