Foundations, philanthropy and international journalism

Bill and Melinda Gates
Bill and Melinda Gates: big media funders Photo: Kjetil Ree

Private foundations provide crucial funding for news outlets that report on humanitarian crises and international development. But why do these foundations fund journalism? Do they have an agenda? And how does their funding influence the news organisations they support?

A new article by Dr Mel Bunce (City University London) looks at the influence of foundations on the content of international, public interest news. Published in the journal Ethical Space, the article argues that foundations may influence both the topics that get reported and – more generally – the ethics of news work.

Advocacy journalism and the drive for impact
Traditional journalists place a strong emphasis on the norm of ‘objectivity’ – usually defined as a form of impartial, non-involved witnessing of events.

Foundations, however, often have strategic objectives and want to make a difference with the news they fund: for example, to tackle racism, build community solidarity, or encourage parents to vaccinate their children.

News organisations that have (or seek) foundation funding can spend considerable effort trying to prove the “impact” of their reporting to satisfy funders. The drive for impact also places journalists on the same side of the fence as aid and development practitioners: advocates for solutions, rather than the watchdogs, critics and observers.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF)
The article explores the influence of foundation influence through a case study of the BMGF. The BMGF elevates some news topics for funding above others, and it particularly supports ‘positive’ stories that foreground solutions to development problems.

‘Today’s Problems are Solvable’ – outside the BMGF Visitor Centre | Photo: Adbar

There is also emerging evidence that news organsiations receiving BMGF funding may be reluctant to report on the activities of the foundation (critically or otherwise) because of audience perceptions of bias. This is concerning given the huge role the foundation plays in the development sector, and the number of news outlets it funds.


Prof Bunce’s article is part of a special issue of Ethical Spaces

The full article appears in Beyond clickbait and commerce: The ethics, possibilities and challenges of not-for-profit media A Special Issue of Ethical Space: The International Journal of Communication Ethics Vol.13 No.2/3 Edited by Denis Muller Judith Townend. It can be read here