Gates’ funding of journalism raises ethical questions

In our coverage of the Kaiser Family Foundation’s report on the present and future of the global health beat, we noted the influx of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s largesse ($1 billion in the past decade) [correction] into that particular sphere of the health journalism world. The foundation has gone beyond supporting the training for journalists to now funding specific reporting enterprises – such as a recent ABC News special “on an incubator to boost preemie survival in Africa and a new machine to diagnose tuberculosis in the developing world.”

Now, Seattle Times reporters Sandi Doughton and Kristi Heim look at the logical question brought about by all that money: “Does Gates funding of media taint objectivity?

I don’t think there’s a journalist among us who will be able to resist reading the whole thing, if only to see just how much certain organizations have been given and which stories the foundation has been pushing. Nonetheless, I’ll run through a few of the highlights.

The Seattle Times reporters touch on some high-profile pieces funded through partnerships between the foundation and top media organizations, but write that the Gates effect runs much deeper than investigations that say “Funded in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation” at the end. After all, they write, “The Gates Foundation spends more on policy and advocacy than most big foundations — including Rockefeller and MacArthur — spend in total.” It accounts for a tenth of their annual $3 billion budget.

To garner attention for the issues it cares about, the foundation has invested millions in training programs for journalists. It funds research on the most effective ways to craft media messages. Gates-backed think tanks turn out media fact sheets and newspaper opinion pieces. Magazines and scientific journals get Gates money to publish research and articles. Experts coached in Gates-funded programs write columns that appear in media outlets from The New York Times to The Huffington Post, while digital portals blur the line between journalism and spin.

As the reporters note, their sources point that that, “While the aims may be laudable, the ability of one wealthy foundation to shape public discourse is troubling to some.”

“Even if we were to satisfy ourselves that the Gates Foundation were utterly benign, it would still be worrisome that they wield such enormous propaganda power,” said Mark Crispin Miller, professor of media, culture and communications at New York University.

For their part, foundation folks say they’re trying to raise the profile of undercovered issues, not manipulate the world’s media.

“We’re trying to do everything we can to make sure people understand not just the need, but the opportunity, to make a huge difference in the lives of millions of people around the world,” said Joe Cerrell, who oversees the foundation’s policy, advocacy and communications work in Europe. “For us, it’s about making sure that these stories get told.”

For a more critical take, see Humanosphere blogger Tom Paulson’s review. In addition, David Jacobs, director of foundation information management at the Foundation Center, raises the question of whether it’s ethical for media outlets to accept donations from large foundations whose activities they may have to scrutinize one day.

Oh, and by the way, the reporters write, “The Seattle Times received a $15,000 Gates grant through Seattle University for a series of stories on homelessness in 2010.”


Christopher Williams, senior communications officer of The Gates Foundation, has written to Covering Health to clarify: “In fact, the foundation has spent approximately $50 million on media grants and partnerships over the past decade. We have spent approximately $1 billion on all advocacy efforts, for all of the issues that are important to the foundation. This includes research, policy work, and other advocacy of our issues that is not necessarily media focused.”

3 thoughts on “Gates’ funding of journalism raises ethical questions

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  2. Avatar photoAndrew Holtz

    The Gates Foundation is noted for its hands-on approach, monitoring and guiding the programs and people it supports. Its involvement with journalists does raise concerns.

    There are many groups that sponsor and direct health education programs and entertainment programs infused with health messages using local media. But the distinction between health education and health journalism needs to be understood and respected, including the necessary independence of journalists.

    While it may not make sense to equate a not-for-profit foundation with a for-profit corporation (or a trade group representing industry), we must be wary of any attempt to co-opt journalists in order to further the mission of a sponsor.

    To put it bluntly, can a journalist who receives support from the Gates Foundation freely report on health programs also funded by Gates?

  3. Avatar photoMary Clogston

    I admire Bill and Melinda Gates for the good they are doing throughout the world.
    Research Doctors are saying “The brain is the new frontier,” and so much has been discovered in the past thirty years regarding compulsions, mental disorders and neurological disorders, and yet it is impossible to get help for the individuals and families. My first husband was the first one ever diagnosed with “Chromosome 17 Disinhibition Dementia, Parkinsonian, Amyotrophy Complex” in 1979. This discovery set off a worldwide involvement as the gene disorders were truly worldwide. Chromosome 17 is now being tied into schizophrenia and autism and yet there is no help for the individuals and families. I admire the Gates for all their endeavors but I wish they would turn their attention to the brain disorders. I would think understanding the brain and all it’s illnesses would make life so much better for so many people throughout the world.

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