WBUR takes cautious tack on topical underwriting

Originally published in Current, April 3, 2000
By Mike Janssen

When Jason Beaubien, a reporter at WBUR in Boston, launched a series of in-depth reports on a local elementary school in early February [2000], the "Learning at the Marshall" series ended up generating some news of its own. The reports marked WBUR's first foray into selling underwriting for specific news stories, a practice that spooked station reporters and raises questions in the eyes of ethicists and other journalists.

Beaubien's first installment in the series on the John Marshall Elementary School aired with a tag the reporter apparently didn't expect — a funding credit for two underwriters with direct interests in education. Beaubien's series was the first to go to air with its own line of underwriting, and reporters feared that the relationship could suggest a conflict of interest. WBUR management says the news department's fears have been resolved, but add that the station is now more cautious about pursuing its new funding strategies.

When Beaubien's first report aired Feb. 7, WBUR spokeswoman Mary Stohn says it was immediately followed by a credit read by the morning newscaster: "Special funding for WBUR's series on the Marshall School is provided by the Boston Foundation, investing in education and a brighter future for Boston's children in our city, and the MathWorks, developers of MatLab and Simulink, software for technical professionals; committed to education for all those who seek to learn, www.mathworks.com." The Boston Foundation funds numerous projects, including educational initiatives.

The credit set off alarms in a news department evidently caught by surprise. Beaubien declined to comment for this story, referring Current's call to WBUR Marketing Director Jay Clayton, and other news staffers did not return calls seeking comment. However, Boston Globe media reporter Mark Jurkowitz reported Feb. 24 that "a number of staffers" were concerned that the underwriting could "create the appearance of advertiser influence on the series." Stohn says Beaubien also feared that the underwriters' educational ties and the placement of the credit could reinforce the perception even more.

Beaubien took his concerns to News Director Sam Fleming and General Manager Jane Christo. In response, WBUR changed the credit's wording and distanced it from the story. When the next installment of the series aired Feb. 15, listeners heard this immediately after the story: "Funding for WBUR's education series is made possible by our contributing listeners, with additional support from the Boston Foundation and MathWorks." After a few unrelated items, the host read a modified version of the original credit that did not refer to the Marshall School series and added "our listeners" as funders.

Fleming says the change "satisfied everyone." But that wasn't the end of Beaubien's dilemma. He wanted to report on the Marshall School's run-down schoolyard, but learned that the Boston Foundation runs a project to help spruce up decrepit schoolyards. Fearing he might come off as advancing the Boston Foundation's mission, Beaubien did the story anyway, and disclosed in his script the foundation's relationship to the series and to the repair program. The March 27 story also features a Boston Foundation staffer escorting Beaubien to a "success story" schoolyard that the initiative helped to fix up.

Fleming disagrees that funding relationships have the potential to restrict journalists. "You do the story," he says. "You do whatever you do to do a good story."

Where NPR draws the line

As it navigated the issues, WBUR called NPR ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin for help, and Dvorkin discussed NPR's policy on news funding. Dvorkin says NPR tries to keep an "arm's length" distance from underwriters. "There has to be a large tent that covers the subject, as opposed to specific pieces of reporting," he says. For example, the Pew Charitable Trust is funding the network's Changing Face of America project, but Dvorkin says the "general grant" doesn't dictate what reporters cover.

By way of contrast, NPR developed a more cautious approach to series-specific underwriting after accepting money from the World Bank to report on World Bank-funded water projects. NPR did the reports, but after finishing the job, felt that the relationship had been too tight. Dvorkin says the World Bank didn't try to micromanage reporting. "But we just felt that we were getting kind of close to the line, and it made us feel somewhat uncomfortable." As for WBUR, Fleming started planning the education series before the Boston Foundation and MathWorks committed funding. He says Beaubien would have reported the series even if it hadn't been specially funded.

The practice is becoming more commonplace as public radio stations cultivate other sources of income, says Ralph Barney, editor of the Journal of Mass Media Ethics. Barney doesn't discourage it across the board, but says stations should weigh the benefits of additional revenue against possible damages to their integrity.

"You do the best you can to find funding," he says. "Ideally, you would get a wine grower to put up the money because he was purely altruistic for a series on education, rather than having to get the education money that might have the appearance of being a little bit tainted." Barney also recommends securing series-specific underwriting from multiple funders to avoid appearing beholden to any one interest.

WBUR staff says the station will continue to discuss funding issues as it seeks more underwriting for special reports. "In many ways, the whole thing ended up being a really healthy discussion," Fleming says. "Basically, it's raised our antennae about the need to make sure that we know the kind of support we're seeking, and where we're going to put it."

Christo agrees. "It's good to get it talked about, to realize that something new might raise concerns with people who don't know why we're doing this, what we're doing, and what it means."

Barney doesn't think reporters should be embarrassed when they disclose funders in cases like this. Airing the credit after Beaubien's story shows "a great deal of respect for your audiences," he contends. "You say, 'Hey, you guys, decide whether this story was twisted, or bent, or redirected,' so you can give the story the credibility you want to give it."

"If you must accept funding, then you tell your audience that you've gotten that funding and then let your audience deal with its own perceptions," he adds. "It isn't a perfect way to do it, but it's about the best one we've got."

 

 
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