Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Foundations and Healthcare Journalism

I'm sorry I missed it when it came out last month, but there's a really good new paper from Harvard's Shorenstein Center that examines the potential for conflict when foundations throw financial assistance behind reporting on health care.

The paper by Maralee Schwartz spends a lot of time on Kaiser Health News, which was launched in June by the Kaiser Family Foundation. Schwartz talks to many of the parties involved in the creation and oversight of KHN, as well as editors at its biggest partner, The Washington Post.

Written in a journalistic style, the paper allays potential concerns about the relationship between foundation and news service and documents the care that foundation leaders exercised in establishing the news service's independence and credibility. In an interview with Poynter Online, Schwartz said she began her study skeptical of the relationship. But by the time she had completed her work, she told Poynter, "I can't tell you how surprisingly comfortable I became with it in the end."

I have to say, I had a similar experience. Before I met foundation SVP Matt James in January, I thought the news service would be a weak substitute for real journalism. As James says in his elevator speech, they do mostly explanatory journalism - no "gotcha" - so I wondered if their work could have teeth. But I was persuaded that everything they do to cover news would be SOP in any major newspaper's newsroom.

This is not to say the job of avoiding conflict is a one-time proposition. Schwartz includes in her paper the opinions and observations from some of journalism's leading lights, and one in particular struck me. It came from Ted Gup, the incoming head of the journalism department at Emerson College. Gup worries not so much about the relationship between foundation and news service, but the relationship between news service and client. As Schwartz reports:

“The exigencies of circumstance can compromise standards,” said Ted Gup, a former journalist and recently named chair of the journalism department at Emerson College. “Part of my concern is not just that some of these sources have agendas, but that the mere availability of content may skew coverage.”

The deployment of declining resources reflects what people want to know versus what they need to know, Gup continued. “We can’t have what we cover defined by the charity or magnanimity of others. It has to be defined by all of society’s vulnerabilities.” Gup said he also worries that dependence on free content will lead to an erosion of reporting and a failure of journalists to keep abreast of what is happening, leaving the public at risk. He pointed to the Bernard Madoff scandal as an example. “Editing is not the same as generating — the system atrophies.”

Gup has a good point. But those are problems that also may be overcome. As Schwartz's paper notes, there is a great opportunity for foundations to support specialty journalism, and we're likely to see more. We should hope that others take the same care as the Kaiser Foundation.

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