One of the questions we're most frequently asked on the NPR Ed team is, essentially, "Don't you guys get a lot of money from the Gates Foundation?"
The answer is, of course, yes.
What that question is often implying is: "Aren't you guys just a mouthpiece for the Gates Foundation's agenda?"
The answer is, of course, no.
In addition to the criticism that we're in the bag for Gates, or one of the many other organizations that support our work, you can pretty easily find comments on our posts saying that we're in the bag for the teachers unions. Or the opponents of the teachers unions. Or that we're too much for the Common Core. No, wait, we're slanted against the Common Core!
In other words, many people view us and our work through the lens of their own beliefs.
We can't help that. 'Twas ever thus, as they say.
The people at NPR who cover politics, or the Middle East, or any other issue face the same scrutiny.
What we can do, though, is be as clear and upfront about who and what we're reporting on as possible. The word we use for that is transparency.
At a practical level that means when we mention Gates, or other foundations or work supported by them, you're going to be seeing notes in our stories pointing out that this or that foundation "also supports NPR's coverage of education."
We know that won't satisfy everyone. When we write about research or report a story about a program or school one of our funders supports, critics are quick to seize upon that as the latest evidence that we've "sold out" ... forgotten our ethics ... been swayed by all that grant money.
I have to tell you, it just doesn't work that way.
The reporters and editors for the most part prefer not to know the details of where our funding comes from. Of course, complete isolation isn't possible, but it just doesn't affect the day-to-day decision-making. We can no more ignore a good story because it's based on work funded by Gates or the Wallace Foundation or someone else, than we can assign a story that isn't worth doing because it would make this or that foundation happy.
Our funders know that when they give NPR money, it helps pay for the reporters and producers and editors, the travel and production costs and equipment and all the things that go into putting stories online and on the air. They don't get to pick what stories we cover or how we approach a given beat.
But the simple fact is, in education there is going to be a lot of overlap between funders who support NPR, and funders who support research and programs aimed at improving schools. Philanthropies are interested in giving their money to the very same people and programs we're interested in writing about as journalists: the educators, entrepreneurs, researchers and thinkers who are doing new — and successful — things to solve the toughest problems in education.
There's a word for that in our business: "news." Especially given our commitment to move our reporting beyond conflict and problems to examine solutions.
And so when there is overlap with our funders, it won't change what stories we choose or how we go about reporting them.
But it is information we feel strongly that you should have. Then you can make up your own mind about our work and what we're reporting on.
Across NPR we take this responsibility seriously. It's in our ethics manual, and it's worth quoting from it here, for the record:
"Our journalism is made possible by a diverse coalition of funding sources, including donations from members of the public, grants from foundations and government agencies, and paid sponsorships and underwriting. While we value all who support our work, those who fund us do so in the knowledge that our journalism serves only the public. We believe our strength as a business is premised solely on high-quality, independent journalism in the public interest. All NPR employees — journalists as well as sponsorship, communications and development staff — are committed first and foremost to that service.
"At NPR, the journalists — including senior news managers — have full and final authority over all journalistic decisions. We work with all other divisions of the company towards the goal of supporting and protecting our journalism. This means we communicate with our sponsorship and development departments to identify areas where we hope to expand our reporting. It also means we may take part in promotional activities or events such as coordinated fund drives, listener support spots and public radio audience-building initiatives.
"But we observe a clear boundary line: NPR journalists interact with funders only to further our editorial goals, not to serve the agendas of those who support us."
Since we began NPR Ed we've realized we're going to have to be extra vigilant on this. Already it has come up several times, with several of our funders.
And we know we're going to have to be extra careful to make sure we're doing our homework on the origins and funding of research or programs or individuals we're reporting on.
We also expect — and encourage — you to let us know how we're doing.