Editorial independence for newsrooms – the risks and the rewards

Paying for reporters to ask you critical questions sounds downright crazy. 

But this is exactly what many institutions, universities, interest groups, and causes do. Even some corporations do it, loosening the strict hold on their communication and allowing a degree of editorial independence to subsidized in-house newsrooms, so they can deliver company news just like any other outside news organization would.

Editorial Independence newsroom at work

(Photo: Esther Vargas, Creative Commons license)

They are voluntarily ceding control of that part of their organisation’s communication that has to do with reporting news and fostering debate.  But by doing this they open up their own policies to questioning, and even risk their own internal newsroom researching stories that may impact their institution negatively among a wider public.

Risks

Why would they ever do this? Why deliberately hang out your (possibly dirty) washing for all to see? The risks to an organization could be:

  • Negative, critical stories reinforcing dissatisfaction with your own organization
  • Uncertainty about whether an independent media represents the company or institution, or its management
  • Stories being unearthed that are subsequently picked up by outside media

Rewards

So what possible arguments for an independent newsroom can outweigh the risks that this independence entails?

Here are a few of them:

  • Stories published on a platform known to be independent of management are more likely to be read and believed by stakeholders including staff, students (if a university), customers and partners.
  • The independence of a newsroom’s reporting supports the institution’s wider core mission as being democratic
  • It can be more effective, because of authenticity, than official corporate communication channels in reaching staff, stakeholders and customers
  • Knowledgeable, continuing in-depth and specialized coverage of complex stories by a staff that has had the time to understand the issues at stake
  • Stories on the independent site will gain more traction in the wider web, than posts in traditional communication channels
  • For the independent newsrooms it is easier to find stories that have an immediate impact on the readers

My claim is that many forward-thinking institutions, interest groups, business lobbies and associations can gain the benefits of supporting their own, editorially independent, newsrooms without risk to their brand and message.

Seven-year project

In a seven year-project, 2009-2016, the University of Copenhagen funded an independent English-language news service, the University Post (one hired staff member, 20-30 semi-volunteer student reporters), to run in parallel to a Danish-language service Uniavisen (five hired staff members).  An arms-length principle was upheld, meaning that management had no control over the editorial line of the media. In our charter, editorial oversight was carried out by a ‘newspaper board’ with staff and student representation but with no direct management link.

editorial-independence2

It is important to note the fact that the University Post was an English-language service in a Danish-speaking country (see my blog post about the implications of English-language reporting here.) This increased the value, but also exacerbated the potential risks for the University of Copenhagen, as both positive and negative stories could potentially reach a wider audience, impacting the status of the university abroad.

The experience of the University Post, and the Danish-language Uniavisen, can serve as a test case to highlight the strategic consequences and the ethical dilemmas that come from true editorial independence for in-house newsrooms.

So how did it work in practice?

Both of the University of Copenhagen’s media outlets, the Danish Uniavisen, and the English-language University Post, were treated like any other media outlet by the University of Copenhagen’s communication department.  They were neither given privileged access to any press releases, databases or photo libraries, nor allowed more access to top management for interviews than any other media.

Hired journalists were on the one hand staff at the University of Copenhagen, receiving salaries – on the other hand reporters, obligated by their charter to report objectively and independently.

Conflicting roles of reporter and employee

At the University of Copenhagen, this dual role could lead to ambiguity in meetings where other non-University Post staff were present. Could we, for example, use information that was presented to us in private as a colleague, in our reporting?

In practice, this seldom led to problems, as we instituted a strict policy of always making colleagues aware of it when we were in a role as colleagues, and when we were in a role as reporter.

At meetings, hosts would often warn colleagues that ‘the University Post is present’ and the University Post would clear any quotes for stories with colleagues before publishing.

Editorial independence Board Meeting

Managers exiting a board meeting at the University of Copenhagen. Should the reporters be allowed in the room? (Photo: Polina Chebotareva)

Board meetings at the University of Copenhagen are an excellent example of this dilemma. Board meetings were in principle open to the University Post and the Uniavisen reporters. But we upheld an informal understanding with the Board that all quotes from the meeting would be cleared with the source beforehand. Something that in practice meant that big, breaking news stories from the Board could be delayed for many hours. This deal with the Board allowed them to give us access, while upholding our charter as independent.

Freedom of Information requests

The University of Copenhagen is liable to the Danish law governing freedom of information. And Freedom of Information (FOI) requests were frequently filed by the University Post and Uniavisen for university documents relating to stories that we covered.

But as we were staff at the University of Copenhagen, we as reporters often deliberately held back the number of these requests knowing that these requests were time-consuming for the recipient.  Too many spurious requests might negatively affect our access to tip-offs for the good stories and our standing and ultimately our funding by the university.

An interesting example is a request made by me on behalf of the University Post for documents relating to the University of Copenhagen Housing Foundation that leases rooms and apartments to international students. We had received a tip that the Foundation was deliberately withholding deposits from students, and this was backed up by documentation from students, and the fact that one student had actually won a case against the Foundation in court.

The Foundation would not release documents to the University Post, and so I opted for an official FOI request to force them to do so. The Foundation then denied our request with reference to the fact that they were independent and, despite the name, not answerable to the publicly accountable University of Copenhagen.

After consulting with colleagues, I decided to go with the story anyway, as the overwhelming evidence supported the contention that deposits were being unlawfully withheld. You can read the original story about the UCPH Housing Foundation withholding deposits here.

So, in theory, a critical story on one of the University of Copenhagen’s subsidiaries, the Housing Foundation, was reported by us the University Post, another University of Copenhagen subsidiary.  From a short term perspective, this would not make sense from a University of Copenhagen perspective, as our story would reduce the number of students applying to use the Housing Foundation’s services.

But in the longer term, a Housing Foundation that does not fulfill its obligation for public service is not good for anyone, least of all the University of Copenhagen, and by our running of this story the overall value will increase of a stay in Copenhagen for present and future international students.

Aggressive investigators or passive reporters?

A constant theme of discussion between University Post and Uniavisen reporter colleagues was how far we should go in independently reporting stories that had a wider impact on the University of Copenhagen’s brand and reputation.

This was brought home during the coverage of one of the largest Danish research scandals, the case of Milena Penkowa. Penkowa is a Danish neuroscientist who was a professor at the University of Copenhagen’s Panum Institute. She was convicted of fraud, and the embezzlement of funds, and was later found guilty of scientific misconduct in relation to falsified experiments on rats.

Editorial Independence Milena Penkowa

Neuroscientist Milena Penkowa (centre) entering her place of work with lawyer, surrounded by media. (Photo: Mike Young)

But how aggressive should the University Post and Uniavisen be in their pursuit of a story that was negatively affecting the standing of the University of Copenhagen at home and abroad?

Other Danish media were also pursuing this story, and so you could argue that there was no argument that University Post or Uniavisen was doing the University of Copenhagen a public service by independently pursuing it also. We dutifully therefore, mostly quoted other media, and re-published news items as they came in.

But the issue came to a head when Uniavisen reporter Claus Baggersgaard read the agenda memo for an upcoming Board meeting at the University of Copenhagen. These memos were in the public domain, but would not normally be noticed by other non-specialist niche media like ours.

On the memo: The Panum Institute had, after two years, found Milena Penkowa’s freezer.

This was a big story. The freezer that was full of samples, could Penkowa claimed, confirm her innocence, and it supported her claim that the Faculty treated her evidence recklessly.

Claus Baggersgaard recounts the situation and the dilemma that it raises:

“The dilemma is that following normal news values, we should report the sudden appearance of the freezer. But sometimes there are values that overrule these news values. Should we, with privileged access to the Board Meeting, be aggressive, and the first media to pursue and question the faculty on this story.  Some say, it would be fine if we reported it after other media broke the story, but should we be the ones breaking this story?”

In the end, Uniavisen did opt to break the story, and University Post reported it subsequently. In an entertaining thread underneath the Danish article, the chairman of Uniavisen’s and University Post’s independent board, Bjørn Quistorff expresses his disappointment in Uniavisen’s decision to cover the story critically, with the journalist Claus Baggersgaard defending himself.

The question is how far should an embedded, subsidized media go in reporting about its parent company or institution?

When I ask him, Claus Baggersgaard says that he constantly reminds himself what his role is, and what he has been hired to do under the independent charter.

“I am a journalist, so I should not in fact let myself be ruled by any other criteria than those that inform my journalism. My view is that the University of Copenhagen has hired me as a journalist. If they did not want me to pursue stories as a journalist does, they should have hired someone with a different job description.”

Universities are a special case in the debate about the values and risks of upholding independent, yet embedded and subsidized media. Universities in Europe and especially in the United States uphold a historic tradition of independent student and staff journalism. Many American universities subsidise student or staff newspapers with independent editorial charters, and they are mostly distinct from the universities’ official communication and marketing channels.

But interest and trade groups, public and private, can also uphold media with a high degree of editorial independence from a ‘parent’ organization. The idea is that the gain from a comprehensive, quality, independent coverage outweighs any particular interest of a given member company or stakeholder.

Take a media like the Australian business news site theleadsouthaustralia.com.au. It is wholly funded by the state of South Australia, but operates under a strict editorial charter upholding the independence of its reporting from government interference. As Jim Plouffe, the Editor of the Lead South Australia puts it:

“We are wholly funded by government but through a organisation called Brand South Australia,” he explains, adding that they are purposely one step away from the government.”

Yet stories do not necessarily sing the praise of specific South Australian manufacturers. Take the example of the wine industry, Jim Plouffe explains:

“South Australia has some of the best wines in the world but also exports way too much high volume grape plonk – a legacy of federal government policy to give tax breaks and help to struggling farmers to plant grapes. We do stories about how selling quality wine is much more important that the unattainable mass production, outlining the facts of oversupply. Basically we do good journalism and give these stories to news outlets interested in the specific subject and don’t hide the fact that the stories are intended to make are people aware of South Australia – but we are not selling widgets, so our key indicators are awareness, reach and engagement, not sales”.

The rationale behind subsidising in-house journalism is that it can do something that other media or official  communication channels can’t, or won’t, do. Like delivering continuous in-depth reporting on topics of interest to a trade or interest group, as in the example from LeadSouthAustralia.

And it can help the parent organization/corporation by subtly supporting  the reader’s overall identity with  the group.

Independence can boost core message

It works like this.

Research shows that readers perceive publications as biased if they are seen to represent other groups than those they identify with themselves. In an experiment, researchers put the exact same story on a perceived right wing news site as on a perceived left wing news site. They then showed it to a group of left leaning and right leaning readers. The story was judged as being biased by the left wing site by the right leaning readers and vice versa.

The same should apply to corporate news from official managed communication channels versus from independent, chartered news sites. My theory is that readers will be more ready to perceive bias in traditional communication channels’ stories and news as they perceive the communication to be coming from ‘above’ from management.

This would explain why in-house, but editorially independent newsrooms can in a subtle way better impart parent organisations’ messages, in the end supporting a wider loyalty to the parent group. The audience sees the journalist in the editorially independent newsroom as fundamentally one of them and not just a stooge for management even if they cover the same story.

This was certainly often the case with University Post and Uniavisen at the University of Copenhagen, enabling complex stories about university politics and events to be disseminated more widely among the University of Copenhagen’s staff, students and stakeholders.

Where can independent newsrooms work?

In which organisations, companies, and interest groups can the set-up and subsidy of independent newsrooms work?

I propose a set of prerequisites. The organization, company or interest group (“the parent”) has to:

  • be large enough to make it worthwhile to pay for it/subsidise it
  • be supportive of an open, democratic society
  • have a stake in upholding an open discourse specifically in the field in which it operates
  • be pluralistic, in terms of having many subsidiary units

Take universities for example: They fulfill all the above criteria.

They:

  • Are large – universities have tens sometimes hundreds of thousands of students, researchers and staff, each of whom are active in international networks
  • Are defined by, and have a vested interest, in the freedom of research and speech
  • Need to research, peer review, fund, and get funded, within disparate, specialised fields of science
  • Are divided between faculties and departments, and between stakeholders, namely students, scientists, staff and alumni.

All these elements make universities ripe for independent newsroom communication with editorial charters.

Not just about bias

Journalists working for traditional media have defined the terms of any debate on editorial independence as a debate about bias. Under these terms, a subsidized, embedded media cannot per definition report without bias, thereby undermining its journalism.

I asked for input from practitioners for this article in the LinkedIn group for Online reporters and Editors. The responses on the thread quickly steered towards a question of whether or not traditional media could uphold objectivity in spite of the fact, that they were owned by corporations.  As I hope to have shown with the examples above, there is more complexity to the issue of editorial independence than whether or not there will be bias because of the media’s ownership by the parent organization or corporation.

Editorially independent newsrooms can do something that traditional top-down, managed, communication channels can’t do. And they can do something that non-specialised external media can’t do either.

They can deliver a continuous in-depth reporting on topics of interest to an institution, trade or interest group without losing the perceived authenticity of other news sites.

I would love to hear any comments you might have to the arguments I put forward. I would especially like to hear any further arguments for, or against, upholding clear independence in embedded ‘corporate’ newsrooms. Feel free to comment below!

 

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