Monday, July 11, 2011

Broad and the media

The influence of the Broad Foundation on public education is a hot topic in Charlotte,  and may draw even more debate as the superintendent search gears up.  So it seems like a good time to visit a question that bubbled up  in the spring:  Does the foundation that's striving to reshape urban education also influence the way reporters cover education?

A "Broad virus" blog that's gone viral in education circles suggests that one sign of "infection" is local newspapers and public radio stations short-changing controversy about Broad-endorsed reforms.  When I was on vacation in May,  "Joe Teacher" emailed to say he'd heard an announcement that Charlotte's WFAE  is sponsored by the Broad Superintendents Academy,  which trains candidates to lead urban districts.  "Is there any way to tell if Mr. Broad is donating to other local radio?"  he asked.

I heard the announcement shortly afterward,  and the academy actually sponsors NPR,  not the local station. WFAE News Director Greg Collard confirmed that,  but said the NPR sponsorship announcement once landed right after a story about teacher performance pay by WFAE reporter Lisa Miller.  "Bad timing," Collard said.

That got me thinking about a comment Broad's Erica Lepping had made during a Charlotte visit,  mentioning earlier grants to the Education Writers Association and the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media.  I asked her for more information and she said yes,  in past years the foundation has given  "small grants" to both EWA (which I'm a member of) and Hechinger ("we used to fund a few Hechinger workshops for journalists, at least one of which I believe you attended").

Says Lepping:   Each of these organizations sends us proposals every year, as do many other media outlets (e.g. radio stations) that we have not funded to date.  Our foundation rarely funds these types of efforts –  we typically stick to investing directly in efforts to dramatically improve public schools.  During the recession when our endowment decreased,  we stopped doing any media grants, in order to focus all dollars directly to school districts and ed orgs.

As you may know,  Hechinger,  Ed Week and EWA are now all much more reliant on philanthropic funding than they were in the past,  given changes in business plan models and newsrooms under the recession,  so I expect they will continue to seek funding from all the foundations going forward.

However,  in any case where we have funded media orgs,  we have never required particular content/messages to be adopted as a result.  So,  for example,  when we funded an Ed Week series 8 years ago on Leadership,  decisions regarding what leaders to write about,  sources,  story angles et al were entirely up to Ed Week (same with the old Hechinger workshops).  In other words,  we do not get involved in editorial decisions.  When we have made a grant for ed journalism,  we trusted that those particular grantee orgs and their leaders would (given their strong reputations and track records) deliver high quality journalism that helps readers critically think,  provides facts and multiple perspectives and make up their own minds.

Interesting!  I can attest that when I've gone to education-reporting workshops,  there are panels of speakers representing various views,  with an audience of journalists who are quick to pick apart spin and question the diversity on panels.  I've never been sent home with a "write about this" mandate,  though organizers sometimes ask us to report back on what we learned and send links to articles where we've used the info.

It's smart to keep an eye on how the financial picture affects reporting.  It's no secret that money is tight these days,  and if reporters go to conferences,  it's often because someone else is footing the bill.  Journalists' organizations also feel the pinch.  And, yes, newspapers are certainly looking for ways to raise revenue in an extraordinarily challenging business environment (see Editor Rick Thames' column on one such avenue).

My take:  The best defense against anyone "selling out" is the vigilance and openness of those who care about journalistic integrity.

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