Journalism funded by interested organizations

Increasingly, organizations that have not traditionally been involved in journalism are launching operations that produce news, features and commentary in the same field where the business or government organization operates. For instance, a hospital corporation may create a health news service bearing its name, or a camera company may launch a news brand to write about photography. These ventures are sometimes called “content marketing” or “brand journalism.” They are new enough that their operations, structures and ethics are all evolving.

(This module concerns news ventures entirely launched by companies and governments. For donations to existing news organizations from outside funders, or news ventures launched mainly for the purpose of philanthropy, see the module “Accepting money from donors and foundations.”)

One decision the company or government needs to make is whether it truly is launching a journalism operation or simply wants to practice a new form of public relations. If it’s a public relations operation, it should operate by PR ethics codes, such as the Public Relations Society of America Code of Ethics or a PR code covering the nation where you live. But if you’re trying to launch a true journalism operation, you should consider how to minimize and disclose the inherent conflicts. Perhaps it’s a hybrid that should draw from both. If you can’t accept the fundamentals in Step 1, it’s probably best not to describe your work as journalism.

Financial issues

A journalism operation with roots in a company or non-profit organization in the same field might gain credibility if it can develop an independent — or at least arm’s-length — funding relationship. But generally the whole operation is funded by a particular entity, and the best way to maintain integrity is to disclose the relationship and try to build credibility by producing excellent journalism rather than PR in disguise. Masquerading as an independent news organization will almost surely fail and damage your credibility severely when you are exposed.

Building credibility

Credibility will be a key challenge for a brand-journalism or content-marketing operation. Both in discussions with executives of the parent organization and in the daily practice of journalism, you should explore creative approaches to achieve some measure of independence, to build credibility despite (and because of) your affiliation and to disclose conflicts and connections.

Covering your funding organization

If your newsroom covers the field where the parent organization operates, you will eventually need to cover news that involves the funding organization. This is a good test of whether you truly are practicing journalism or PR. If you are able to independently report criticism of your parent organization and examine its performance, that’s a good indication that you’re building a journalism organization. If you go into damage control and focus primarily on reporting the viewpoint of the parent organization, you need to accept that you’re a PR organization and operate accordingly.

The main author of this section is Steve Buttry of Louisiana State University.

See also the “Reporting on Your Own Organization” section in this project.