Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Non-profit is no panacea

As staffing in real news organizations has declined over the past decade (and entertainment TV disguised as news has proliferated), some serious-minded people have considered non-profit efforts as one way to maintain real journalism in the U.S.

The Project for Excellence in Journalism, directed by the Pew Research Center, has released a study of non-profit journalism, which arrived at two general conclusions:

1. The journalism done by groups like ProPublica.com and the Texas Tribune is generally pretty good, but the combined resources of these groups are not enough to replace good, local investigative journalism.

2. A good share of these organizations (44 percent, to be exact) “produced news coverage that was clearly ideological in nature.” In other words, it’s not really journalism at all, but information designed to support a specific agenda.

Some have suggested that non-profits are inherently superior to commercial journalism operations because they are not beholden to advertisers or subscribers. In fact, non-profits can be more beholden to people and organizations with an agenda, since it’s the rare major donor who doesn’t want to have some say in how his or her money is used.

The takeaway from the Pew report is that there is no single solution to improving American journalism. People need to understand that they must get their information from a variety of sources, how that information is being prepared and by whom, and to keep an open mind as they attempt to interpret often wildly conflicting stories.

Fortunately, beyond just providing raw data from its study, Pew researchers suggest four steps for consumers to follow when determining the veracity of information from non-profit sources (most of which are found on the Internet):

1. Examine the website. Find and read through the "About" section. Look at what it says about its mission, the background of the staff and the source of funding. A site that explains these items in detail, provides links to its funders, lists its individual donors and reports its financials is more transparent.

2: Range of Viewpoints. While reading a story, readers can check how much effort a story makes to include relevant and competing viewpoints. The story theme can help consumers get a sense of whether the site has a particular point of view underlying its reporting and story selection. Evaluating this also involves reading through a number of stories.

3: Story Theme. The story theme can help consumers get a sense of whether the site has a particular point of view underlying its reporting and story selection. Evaluating this also involves reading through a number of stories.

4: Reporting Capacity. This study suggests that the non-profit news outlets that have the most robust news operations tend also to offer more balanced and diverse reporting. Information on the news staff can usually be found in the "About" section of the site. Look for the number of listed staff and contributors.

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