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Report recommends best practices for nonprofit investigative journalism

April 26, 2010 By Stacy Forster

New nonprofit journalism centers must protect the integrity of their journalism, no matter how dependent they may be on a limited circle of funders.

That was the take-home message of a report published today by three journalism centers — one of the first comprehensive reports on ethical issues facing nonprofit investigative newsrooms.

The report stresses that only independence, transparency about sponsorship, clear rules on conflicts of interest and frank communication with potential supporters will maintain public confidence in the integrity of these new experiments in journalism.

As mainstream news media struggle with cutbacks, journalists have looked to nonprofit models of journalism as an alternate way to maintain journalism in the public interest. Within the past few years, dozens of nonprofit investigative newsrooms have been created, often funded by foundations and other donors.

The report, “Ethics for the New Investigative Newsroom,” presents the recommendations that emerged from a roundtable of leaders in nonprofit journalism held at the University of Wisconsin–Madison earlier this year.

The Jan. 29 roundtable was a collaboration of the Center for Journalism Ethics at UW–Madison’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and the Knight Chair in Investigative & Enterprise Reporting at the University of Illinois. Additional support was provided by the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation of Oklahoma City.

The report will be discussed at a journalism ethics conference staged by the Center for Journalism Ethics on April 30 at UW–Madison.

The report puts forward ethical principles and best practices to help nonprofit journalists address key issues such as dealing with donors, avoiding conflicts of interest, and developing ethical guidelines for networks of nonprofit centers. The report also outlines legal considerations for nonprofit journalism and explores nonprofit journalism in Canada.

“This report breaks new ground on the ethical questions that confront these new important ventures,” said Stephen J.A. Ward, Burgess Professor of Journalism Ethics and director of the Center for Journalism Ethics. “We hope the report will prompt further discussion and further development of best practices.

The problem of conflicts of interest and the danger of donor influence are not new to journalism, Ward said. But they arise in the next context of centers reliant on a limited number of donors, and where there is less distance between journalists and funders.

The roundtable was led by Ward, Andy Hall, executive director of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, and Brant Houston, Knight Chair in Investigative & Enterprise Reporting at the University of Illinois.

Other roundtable participants were Robert Cribb, an investigative reporter for the Toronto Star; Margaret Wolf Freivogel, editor and co-founder of the St. Louis Beacon; Alden Loury, publisher of the Chicago Reporter; and Christa Westerberg, attorney and vice president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council. Charles Lewis, founding executive director of the Investigative Reporting Workshop, made a presentation to the roundtable via Skype.