Gates-funded ABC series raises concerns about global health … and media

Tonight on ABC News, the television network launches its year-long global health series “Be the Change” hosted by Diane Sawyer and funded in part ($1.5 million) by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

It’s great that ABC is devoting so much time and effort to global health issues. But having the Gates Foundation pay them to do it is a sore point for some, for a variety of reasons. I’ll get to those in a moment.

I’m not going to focus much on the series itself, since it’s just starting, except to say the first story is based in Guatemala and focuses on the problem of chronic malnutrition. Here’s one of ABC’s promo shots:

Posing for a Change

Yeah, I thought this photo was a little odd for a news site: “Hi everybody! Here I am in Antigua!”

But what may trouble others more were all the many references on the ABC web site to the Gates Foundation — including numerous video clips of Bill and Melinda Gates. Also, much of this series actually sounds like — and is — a pitch for donations to numerous charitable causes.

You may well ask: So Mr. Cranky, why are either of these a problem?

Well, for starters, not everyone agrees with Bill and Melinda when it comes to identifying either the primary problems or the best solutions in global health. That’s inevitable, and fine, but journalists have an obligation to remain independent of anyone’s agenda.

When this “media partnership” between ABC News and the Gates Foundation was announced, the New York Times called it “unusual.” In the Chronicle of Philanthropy, one journalism professor was even more disturbed and referred to it as “grotesque.”

Seattle writer Robert Fortner, in an article for Columbia Journalism Review, also weighed in with one of the most extensive reviews of this trend, noting that the Gates Foundation has funded many media organizations (The Guardian, NPR, PBS NewsHour, PRI’s The World, etc.) as part of its “advocacy” agenda.

I will be posting on an interview I did with Gates media folks later, but basically they say the goal is not to advocate for any particular strategy or issue. The goal is simply to get more coverage of these neglected issues and every media grant comes with the assumption that the recipient has editorial independence.

But even if well-intentioned, Fortner says this is already tending to distort global health coverage because:

Gates Foundation funding discourages or even forecloses examination of certain storylines

For example, many would argue that part of the reason for Guatemala’s problem with malnutrition and poverty stems from a long history of inequitable international trade policies and American political interference (as well as corporate influence) in Central America.

The Gates Foundation steers clear of such hot-button political issues and we’ll see if ABC News does as well. Another example of a potential “blind spot” is the Seattle philanthropy’s tendency to favor technological solutions — such as vaccines or fortified foods — as opposed to messier issues involving governance, industry and economics.

Will these messier issues get covered and, if so, will the Gates Foundation’s critics believe they are being represented fairly and adequately by independent observers?

As for ABC News including a bunch of fund-raising pitches from humanitarian and charitable organizations, it’s not unusual — especially for television media. But what about those organizations not on this list? Why weren’t they allowed to make a pitch as well?

Anyway, we’ll see what happens with this series over the next year.

I’d be curious to know what others think — if I’m just being Mr. Cranky or if these kind of partnerships between media and organizations playing an active role in the news stories they want covered do cause some unease.

It’s worth everyone considering because, given the collapse of the financial model (advertising) for much of the news media, it’s likely we will be seeing more of these partnerships.

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About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.

  • Gobobbi

    There is a big disclaimer on the ABC news page about this series: “ABC News will invest more than $4.5 million in the series, covering personnel and production. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is giving a $1.5 million grant that will specifically help fund overseas travel and foreign production costs. As with all reporting and sponsorships, ABC News has complete editorial control over the content of the series.”

    I would have to wait and see how the series goes before passing judgment.

    • I agree that it is too early to pass judgment. But it’s not too early to pay attention to the potential problems in these arrangements.

      The concern isn’t really about editorial control. Every legitimate news organization will demand that they have editorial control. I guess the real question is if the new organization even knows enough about the issues to exert independence. Do they know what questions aren’t being asked, which issues are being avoided?

      Are they aware of alternative perspectives on these issues and are they truly getting the full picture? Global health might appear as if it is merely a collection of challenges everyone is working on to try to solve. But, like every human endeavor, the field also comes with a morass of competing agendas, wrong-headed ideas, outright corruption and power struggles.

      To be clear, my concerns and questions are targeted more at how media organizations deal with the potential for problems arising in these partnerships than with any sinister motives on the part of the Gates Foundation.

      • Gobobbi

        So I watched 20/20 Friday night and my issue, as you already mentioned, is that there is no discussion of the big picture — people in poverty and broken down health systems. Lots of talk about innovative “bandaids.”

  • Paul Cone

    Also worth mention is that while the Gates Foundation does good with its social programs, its financial arm invests in areas that create the need for such programs. Is ABC going to make any mention of that?

    Dark cloud over good works of Gates Foundation
    http://articles.latimes.com/2007/jan/07/nation/na-gatesx07

    • Thanks Paul,
      This is an ongoing issue for the Gates Foundation and other philanthropies as well. Below’s a recent article by the Chronicle of Philanthropy based on comments by an investment manager at the Gates Foundation — Social Investing is Tough.

      http://tiny.cc/i03hg

      Best
      Tom

  • sarah arnquist

    Tom,

    I don’t think you’re being cranky. I think you’re asking the right questions and hopefully more people will ask the same questions. I just talked to my mom and after watching Dianne Sawyer’s pitch for the “Embrace” incubator, she donated $20. I guess that’s a good thing, but when I tried to explain to my mom that while there might a new technology, the problems run much deeper than needing a new technology. I’ll be surprised if these these incubators are actually distributed and used at any meaningful scale in the next couple of years. Those tough questions about delivery, politics and trade agreements don’t fit into this nice scenario or the ABC news coverage, like you said.

    All that being said, who else is going to pay for the news coverage? It doesn’t come free.

    • Tom Paulson

      Thanks Sarah,
      I’m glad you think I’m not being cranky! I do appreciate the support the Gates Foundation gives to media for global health and development reporting. But I do think there are important concerns and questions that need to be addressed in these media partnerships.
      Best
      Tom

  • Dr Eileen Natuzzi

    Sunday Christiane Amanpour interviewed Dr Rajiv Shah about Guatemala and nutrition. Guatemala is ranked 121st of 177 countries on the UNDP HDI scale. Guatemala receives $16-18 million a year from USAID as well as funding from the Gates Foundation. Not surprising to see the country highlighted by the new ABC-Gates love -a-thon Save a Life. I am afraid this series will only end up reporting on what Gates and USAID fund. It will project to the American people the same skewed view of global health that Gates has: attack one disease at a time as apposed to strengthening the entire health delivery system first so curing disease becomes easier and less costly in the long run. There are countries that are in desperate need of support in order to strengthen the delivery of basic healthcare to their people.

    Consider a look at the Solomon Islands where WWII was fought. The country is ranked 134th on the UNDP HDI scale. Below Guatemala. This country receives nothing from USAID global health, Gates Foundation or any other American health care funding source.

    Not much has changed since WWII for the average Solomon Islander living on one of the outer islands. There is malaria, filariasis, TB and now a rising incidence of HIV, diabetes and cancer. Domestic violence is rampant and effects more than 60% of Solomon Island women. There is no ready access to emergency obstetrical and surgical care outside of Guadalcanal. I know this, I provide surgical care, training and support through out the islands but the American TV viewer will never hear this because the country is not on the ABC-Gates radar.

    I wish ABC would shine a light on a country that is not already receiving PEPFAR, USAID and Gates Foundation funding. Perhaps your blog will persuade them to do this. In addition to reporting on truly underfunded countries with real health delivery issues I would like to see ALL the issues pertinent to providing health care in the developing world addressed including surgical care as a legitimate part of global health planning. Surgery includes C-sections, cancer operations, debridement of infected wounds, trauma and injury treatment. Something as mundane as an appendectomy can save a young child’s life in Solomon Islands. It is time to make people aware of the health care plight of countries that are overlooked by Gates, USAID and PEPFAR. That would be true global health reporting.

    Eileen Natuzzi, MD, MS, FACS
    Solomon Islands Coordinator
    Loloma Foundation and
    Society of International Humanitarian Surgeons
    http://lolomafoundation.blogspot.com/

    • Dr. Natuzzi,

      Excellent points.
      It’s true that one problem with how media cover global health is in the “error of omission” category. It’s much easier for reporters to tell a story about a single family or the fight against a particular disease, but much harder to write about the more fundamental need of health system strengthening in poor countries.

      And you’ve also made me curious to know why the Solomon Islands get no foreign aid from the U.S. Maybe I’ll check the new USAID foreign assistance dashboard (www.foreignassistance.gov), but I suspect it won’t explain the why.