We have now published a few reviews of non-profit media. Let’s take a closer look at the criteria we can use to assess a non-profit publication (many of which also apply to for-profit media) and how they should influence a source’s rating.
How a source is funded may influence what it reports on. We currently do not review publications that are primarily funded through advertising or by taxpayers. The types of media we are interested in receive funding primarily (>50%) in one or more of the following ways:
- from individual major donors
- from individual small donations
- from foundations that award grants, fellowships, etc. (more on this below)
- from subscriptions
Each of these revenue sources has its own challenges, with subscriptions or small donations providing the broadest base of support and therefore the least leverage for any individual supporter; the effect of such a model does then depend largely on what most the supporters expect from the thing they’re supporting (even neo-nazi websites like Stormfront use funding from individual donors to survive).
The Intercept is an interesting example for how support from a single large donor can grant a significant measure of editorial freedom. The non-profit behind it, First Look Media, was funded by billionaire Pierre Omidyar, receiving $30M funding in its first year. But of course this presents major vulnerabilities as well. There is the possibility of behind-the-scenes meddling, or the organization might simply run out of money.
When major donors become philanthropists, they often set up foundations. These organizations give in accordance with their funders’ wishes. Many of them operate large endowment funds, which generate investment income indefintely (see Wikipedia’s list of the wealthiest foundations).
Non-profit media can apply for grants from foundations, and some rely primarily in such support – see the ProPublica list of supporters, for example. Heavy reliance on foundations may introduce a status quo bias: typically the creation of millionaires or billionaires, they are usually founded with the intent to advocate for an incremental change agenda within the existing political and economic order. They are also reputation-sensitive, and do not themselves want to be targeted by political groups. Their internal decision-making processes may reflect these biases, and penalize grant applicants who propose overly radical projects.
Such concerns are not unwarranted, as the intense targeting of one of the most progressive funders, George Soros’ Open Society Foundations, by right-wing groups demonstrates. Progressives – who are notoriously skeptical of billionaires’ intentions – don’t necessarily jump to their defense, either. As a result, many other philanthropists avoid politics entirely, and focus on diseases, poverty, or other social ills.
There are, of course, also countless reactionary foundations. Organizations like the “Center for Organizational Research and Education” are funded by corporations to advance their agenda, by discrediting scientific research or activist efforts. And progressive organizations like the Center for American Progress have received funding from corporate donors and foreign countries.
To uncover funding networks, the following resources are helpful:
- The ProPublica Nonprofit Explorer, GuideStar and Charity Navigator mine the tax returns (form 990) of US-based non-profit organizations, which include high-level revenue data and top executive compensation.
- Many established charities publish Annual Reports, though they can be difficult to find. Use a Google search with
site:<domain name>. These reports usually include a funding breakdown by source (foundations, individual donations, etc.).
- Separately, charities may have pages with names like “Benefactors” or “Our supporters” that list key major donors by name.
- A news search for the charity’s name, the Wikipedia article, and other external sources may provide additional information.
Relation to rating: The funding model should not influence a source’s rating.
As noted above, US non-profit tax returns do include top salaries. Needless to say, appropriate compensation is highly dependent on geography, and also correlates with organizational size (running a large, complex organization requires a different skillset that warrants higher compensation). With that said, it’s useful to compare executive compensation with non-profits of similar size in the same region. Is it extraordinarily high?
If the organization is currently dependent on a few large revenue sources like major donors and foundations, excessive compensation may make it more difficult to achieve a broader base of support as soon as these numbers receive greater scrutiny. And of course there’s the practical question of how much the charity can achieve for a given dollar if it pays more for certain roles than it needs to.
Relation to rating: This should only influence a source’s rating to the extent that it appeals for public support.
Overhead vs. Waste
You may have heard of “overhead ratios” and similar efficiency assessments: how much of a charity’s work goes towards programmatic work (such as journalism) and how much goes towards administrative support (such as fundraising, office equipment, etc.).
These ratios are now widely regarded as counterproductive by nonprofit experts, because they can be easily gamed (the functional allocation of expenses is done by the nonprofit itself and contains a lot of loopholes), because honest organizations may get penalized, and because they may disincentivize necessary investments that increase the organization’s effectiveness.
As such, I never look at an overhead ratio by itself, but I do scrutinize Annual Reports, financial statements and other records to look for evidence of wasteful spending. An example would be excessive spending on executive offsite meetings, consultants engaging in runaway planning projects, and so on.
Relation to rating: Wastefulness should influence a source’s rating to the extent that it appeals for public support.
This brings us to the broader question of what we can learn about an organization and its inner workings. The information I expect to find on a well-run non-profit’s website includes:
- information about the tax deductibility of donations
- the latest Annual Report or at least a list of benefactors
- the latest tax returns and financials
- information about the Board and Staff (at least leadership)
- contact information
If such information is nowhere to be found, that doesn’t mean anyone is trying to hide something. Organizations go through stages of development, and developing an understanding of good governance is part of that process. What’s disappointing is when a well-funded organization does a poorer job with this than a scrappy one.
Relation to rating: A well-established, well-funded organization can be penalized for lack of transparency.
A source may position itself in different ways, e.g., as center-left, or religious right, or far left, and this may be expressed in the form of editorials, analysis, and most importantly, coverage. Which stories receive attention and why, and which ones don’t? Which views are dismissed as “unrealistic” or “extreme”? Does the source obsesesively target the same person over and over again, resulting in an unbalanced perception of reality?
I don’t believe that there is “neutral” positioning for a news source. Selection of topics, scope of coverage, placement of stories, etc. are all “opinionated” decisions, made by humans with a perspective on how the world works, or by human-created algorithms optimizing towards a specific outcome like ad revenue. Nobody would want to read an actually neutral news source: positioning and curation are crucial functions of all news media.
In order to identify positioning:
- We can look at the way a source describes itself, or the founder has described it.
- We can look at the aforementioned funding questions to give us some clues. Funders with specific leanings tend to fund consistently with those leanings.
- We can spot check topical coverage:
- How are climate movements like “Keep it in the Ground” treated?
- How are different political candidates treated?
- How are revelations by major whistleblowers like Edward Snowden presented?
- We can look at the editorial pages. Do they restrict themselves to a narrow band of opinions, and if so, which band is it?
- What “experts” are consulted by the source? (See SourceWatch’s list of industry-friendly experts, for example.)
- Does the publication engage in false balance?
Relation to rating: Positioning itself should not influence the rating, but answers to the above question may, especially insofar as they relate to manipulative intent (see below).
Manipulative intent, gross negligence, sensationalizing
Beyond their positioning (which shapes our views through what is included and excluded), media can manipulate our views is subtle and notoso-subtle ways:
Deliberate distortion. The typical example would be an out of context quote. This has been noted in the example of UK politican Jeremy Corbyn, for example: How to speak Corbyn: A Headline Writer’s Guide But there are many other ways to misrepresent a story, omit crucial context, or sensationalize. Clickbait sites on the left are not immune to this charge.
Gross negligence. Imagine building a whole story on the basis of an unverified tweet by a random person on the Internet. Pipelines of media can normalize gross negligence: from Twitter to Infowars or Zerohedge to Breitbart or Daily Caller to National Review or Fox News.
Sensationalizing. The classic example here is the tabloid screaming of a scandal in letters taking up much of the page. The more modern example would be a clickbait headline. A source may report something real, but may do it using hyperbolic language, moral condemnation, exaggerated interpretations, calls to action, and so on.
In all these cases, it’s worth looking not just for evidence that such things occur (which is fairly easy, and supported by fact-checking sites like Politifact, Snopes, and so on), but also whether they follow a pattern consistent with the source’s positioning.
Relation to rating: A source may be penalized consistent with the extent to which it engages in these practices.
Mechanism for corrections
Is there a way to report an error? If so, does it actually result in any acknowledgment or follow-up? I highly recommend testing this with any source whenever you spot an error. The results can be enlightening.
Relation to rating: This is a minor consideration.
What does the news source actually cover? Is it a global, national, locally focused source? Is it restricted to certain topics? Does it include editorials, news, original interviews, cartoons, etc.? The answers shouldn’t reflect well or poorly on the source, but do help readers decide what other sources they might want to add to their mix to even things out.
Relation to rating: Scope should not affect the rating.
Does the source have a discussion forum? If so, does it have any moderation mechanism, protection against forum spam, etc.? Are there other ways for readers to get involved, e.g., through citizen journalism projects?
Relation to rating: This is a minor consideration.
Most content is uner conventional copyright: you can’t use it without the author’s permission (fair use exemptions notwithstanding). For organizations dedicated to advancing the public interest in some way, this can be dissonant. There is an alternative: Creative Commons licensing. It lets an author say: “I want anyone to be able to use it, but only if they credit me by name”. Or “I want anyone to be able to use it, but not commercially.”
Wikipedia, for example, uses the Creative Commons Attribution Share/Alike-License. It requires attribution, and if you share a modified version, your changes have to be made under the same terms. This license is also used by some non-profit media, such as Common Dreams. Many, however, likely have never heard of this option.
Relation to rating: This is a minor consideration.