Working Groups: Funding and Firewalls
Proposed News Policy 1: Underwriting General News Programming
Public media should exercise careful consideration when deciding who can underwrite its news programming. In particular, stations should carefully assess potential underwriters whose agenda is designed to bring about a specific political outcome or to influence public policy on controversial matters.
The following questions may be helpful when considering such underwriting:
- Is the underwriting organization’s primary mission to influence governmental decision making about issues that are the subject of the station’s ongoing news coverage?
- Does the underwriting organization take positions on controversial public policy issues that are the subject of the station’s current news coverage?
- Does the underwriting organization’s lobbying activities focus on issues that are the subject of the station’s current news coverage?
A “yes” answer to any of these questions does not necessarily indicate that underwriting should be rejected, only that the station should pause and give such funding careful thought. For example, a station may conclude that Planned Parenthood or the American Petroleum Institute are normally perfectly acceptable underwriters for general news programming, even though each organization certainly takes positions on controversial issues or attempts to influence governmental decision making. However, it may also be that particular circumstances could alter that conclusion. If, for example, one of the funding organization’s key “talking points” becomes the subject of intense local debate, and the news department is providing ongoing coverage of that same story, a station might conclude that such underwriting was problematic, at least at that particular time. In these particular situations, it’s important that stations convey their decisions with thoughtfulness and clarity to everyone involved, including the funder in question.
While there are always shades of gray regarding the choices stations make, there are two classes of potential underwriters whose acceptability is far less equivocal:
- Political parties and candidates
- Organizations who espouse views that are generally accepted as extreme.
In the first instance, political parties or political candidates are not acceptable underwriters of news programs. In the second, organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan, whose values are clearly antithetical to the principles of a democratic society and whose goals are viewed with extreme distaste by the vast majority of citizens, would also be inappropriate underwriter of news programs.
In sum, different stations may come to different conclusions on who can underwrite its general news programming, but it is crucial that each station adopt a policy that guides its decision making process and that it is fully transparent about the policies and choices it makes with staff, the funding community and its audience.