'Disseminated as news'
Originally published in Current,
Nov. 18, 2002
A year-long partnership that funneled state public relations money into environmental reporting on Philadelphia's WHYY-FM ended bitterly in October after breaches of journalistic ethics were exposed in the Columbia Journalism Review.
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection fully funded a reporting partnership between WHYY-FM and GreenWorks, a prolific nonprofit producer of positive reports about environmental protection.
Underwriting credits did not mention the state agency, however, and aired in various dayparts but not adjacent to the reports that the agency paid for, according to Arthur Ellis, WHYY spokesman. The credits identified the funders as "the Environmental Fund for Pennsylvania, a nonprofit environmental communications organization and producers of GreenWorks Television and Radio."
WHYY News Director Bill Fantini, who developed the project, says he was misled about the full extent of DEP's role and unaware of the conflicts presented by it, though he signed an agreement stating that DEP would be named as an underwriter along with GreenWorks and its parent nonprofit, the Environmental Fund for Pennsylvania.
GreenWorks Executive Director Tim Schlitzer says all parties to the partnership were aware of DEP's funding role and the positive, human-interest angle of the reporting.
"We made two mistakes in this project--one was the source of funding and the other the arrangement of how it would work," says Fantini. Although final editorial decisions for radio reports rested with Fantini, WHYY environmental reporter Brad Linder participated in story meetings with Schlitzer and produced WHYY reports from material researched and reported by GreenWorks.
"I was in a lot of awkward situations of people breathing down my neck," acknowledges Linder, one of two reporters who worked on the partnership. "I was trying to live up to a lot of different people's expectations." He was hired by WHYY but worked collaboratively with counterparts at GreenWorks until May, when Fantini says he cut off Schlitzer's access to the reporter.
Linder's counterpart at GreenWorks, Gwen Shaffer, who also researched and filed stories for WHYY, revealed the funding arrangement in a commentary in the November/December issue of CJR. Shaffer's first-person account of lost innocence told how she was pressured to cover "'positive stories' of dubious merit" and, through a gradual process of discovery and disillusionment, learned that the DEP was covering her paycheck.
Shaffer was a staff writer at the weekly Philadelphia City Paper when she took the job at GreenWorks. She was eager to break into on-air reporting for public radio and says she was unaware of the ethical issues posed by grant-funded journalism.
A few months into the project, Fantini took Shaffer off the air because he was dissatisfied with her voicing, but she continued to research and report stories that Linder delivered on the air. She was fired from GreenWorks in May but denies that she went public with the story out of bitterness. "It was an outrageous infringement of journalistic integrity to allow a funder that they were not up front about to dictate editorial content."
As pubcasters across the country try to build community partnerships as a means of expanding local service, the GreenWorks initiative demonstrates the risks of collaborating on content.
"We went into this looking to create a new role model," says Station Manager Paul Gluck. "We have a number of good partners, but the lesson for us is to ask more questions at the beginning and understand the implications going in."
Both WHYY and GreenWorks insist that editorial control of the radio reports always resided at WHYY, but they dispute whether the station entered the agreement with full knowledge of DEP's funding role.
DEP awarded $510,000 to the project through its public relations firm, ICF Consulting, according to a spokeswoman for the state agency, confirming the figure reported by CJR. GreenWorks paid $94,000 to WHYY for Linder's salary and reporting expenses. The grant also provided for statewide distribution of the environmental reports to other public radio stations.
With support from current DEP Secretary David Hess, Schlitzer established GreenWorks in 1997 to produce television programs that "bring attention to environmental work" within the state, Schlitzer explains. DEP, its sister agencies and grantees have awarded nearly $4.8 million in grants and contracts to GreenWorks since 1997, according to CJR, in addition to the $510,000 DEP spent for the radio project. GreenWorks receives its money through the nonprofit Environmental Fund for Pennsylvania, which is well connected with environmental groups because it hands out money from workplace donation programs.
Fantini and Schlitzer began discussing possibilities for the radio partnership when Fantini was doing freelance narration work for GreenWorks TV programs and serving on an advisory committee that reviewed the TV shows. "We wanted to do a "Radio Expeditions or Pulse of the Planet-type of thing," explains Schlitzer.
"Tim said, 'I could get money for that,' and it evolved from there," recalls Fantini.
Shortly after GreenWorks and WHYY teamed up, Fantini says, he finished his freelance project for GreenWorks and declined to do more work for them.
The plan: package it "as news"
"We understand the news wasn't the right place for our work, because we're an advocate for the environment, but we don't take a particular side in our programs," says Schlitzer. "We feel there are great things going on in the environment that are going on unreported."
He says now that the deal was out of place in a newsroom, but Schlitzer didn't always talk that way.
GreenWorks' initial proposal to the DEP touted access to NPR's affluent audience: "In order to make an impact of reaching the general adult public, information must be disseminated as news." The environmental reporter would "serve as a regular voice for environmental and watershed protection" and report "stories of people and their struggles and successful efforts to make a positive change."
The DEP rejected the proposal because it was submitted to a grant program limited to watershed protection, according to Schlitzer. But DEP officials encouraged the partners to reapply for a grant from its public relations firm.
The state agency's primary interest in the project was in "having folks take a positive look at what is being done on behalf of the environment," says Darlene Crawford, communications director. "A lot of people are involved in very good projects to clean up the environment, and we wanted to make sure those stories got told as well as the negative ones."
She doesn't see a conflict in DEP's funding of the news partnership. "I don't know that this is any different than the local car dealership sponsoring the drive-time news."
By the time of the second proposal to the DEP last year, the station and GreenWorks had signed a partnership agreement that specifies language for underwriting credits: "funding for the environmental reporter is made possible through a grant from GreenWorks, the Environmental Fund for Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. For more information go to www.GreenWorks.tv." Schlitzer and Fantini signed the agreement on Aug. 31, 2001.
"I'm a news director, not a business person," says Fantini, when asked how he could have been unaware of the extent of DEP's funding when he signed the agreement identifying GreenWorks, its parent nonprofit and the DEP. "That contract was screened by our legal counsel," and the "people upstairs" worked out the sponsorship language, he told Current.
"There was an awareness from the beginning that the DEP participated in the funding of this project, but the level was unknown to me," Fantini says. He acknowledges that he didn't check out the source of funding himself.
None of the business folks at WHYY can explain why DEP was dropped from the on-air underwriting credits, according to station spokesman Art Ellis. The credits concluded with a plug for the GreenWorks website, which was also mentioned at the end of each environmental news report.
Although Fantini and Schlitzer disagree on who knew what about DEP's funding, they both insist that the agency didn't influence the reporting that was produced through the partnership.
"I stand by the body of work that was created during this project, regardless of whatever the appearance of impropriety," says Fantini. "Great work was done and it was carefully edited for balance and at no time were we pushed into putting a report on the air about any topic."
"Only about 50 or 60 percent of the stories we pitched to them made it on the air, and not necessarily in the form we recommended," says Schlitzer.
"If you look at the body of work, there's nothing to be ashamed of," says Linder. "Out of 100 stories that we did, only two or three were on stupid topics that didn't deserve coverage."
Other members of the WHYY news team offered mixed assessments of the quality of reporting: from "good" to "not that impressed." Both Linder and Shaffer were new to radio news and needed support and training, another journalist said. "There's no nurturing of talent here," the reporter said. "They bring in college interns and set them loose to cover stories" as soon as they learn to use the equipment.
Questions about the GreenWorks partnership had been circulating in the WHYY-FM newsroom for months, but the editorial conflicts and funding amounts detailed in CJR outraged the reporting staff. In a meeting with Fantini on Oct. 29, reporters demanded full disclosure of all future grants to the newsroom, and the right to check out funders for potential conflicts of interest. Fantini took their demands to station manager Paul Gluck, who agreed to them.
"It's been a horrible year in that newsroom," says one member of the news team who requested anonymity. Newsroom sources say reporters asked Fantini and Gluck about the integrity of the partnership in May, but the managers took no action to end it until the week before CJR published its report.
"The reality here is that this grant was questionable from day one, but the news department had a difficult time calling a duck a duck," says Mhari Saito, a former WHYY reporter who presented research on GreenWorks' ties to DEP to Fantini in May.
"We're often sent out to skewer people who take money from the wrong places, even if they meant to or not," said reporter Aries Keck. "Keeping our heads held up while doing that is difficult now. In everything that we cover, we have to be careful about where the assignment has come from and what the story will actually say."
Web page posted Nov.
19, 2002, revised Dec. 16, 2002