Thoughts on the Gates Foundation paying media to cover global health and development

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has gotten a lot of attention lately for funding media organizations.

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An article in the current Columbia Journalism Review called “How Ray Suarez Really Caught the Global Health Bug” by local writer Robert Fortner, formerly of Seattle’s Crosscut, is perhaps the most extensive and pointed.

I had to laugh at the article’s title (based on the title of a talk given by Suarez in Seattle a while ago). Fortner’s answer is Suarez and PBS Newshour got the bug after they received $3.6 million from Gates to cover global health issues.

Fortner, who wrote about the Gates Foundation for Crosscut, said he quit in 2009 because of his unease with publisher David Brewster accepting funds from the Gates Foundation. Brewster told me he had not been aware that this was the reason Fortner left.

The latest Gates media partnership was what the New York Times called “an unusual financial agreement” between ABC News and the world’s biggest philanthropy aimed at promoting greater coverage of global health issues.

Frankly, I’m not sure what’s so unusual about it. The Gates Foundation has been doing this for years now (including giving money to my media overlords at NPR, again to stimulate more global health coverage).

Here’s a recent statement from Kate James, head of communications for Gates, on media partnerships.

I wrote recently about an another such partnership, after the Guardian announced it had been paid by the Gates Foundation to establish a news site devoted to covering global health and development issues. I thought it looked bad that they immediately did a glowing profile about Melinda Gates only days into the partnership.

To be clear, I’m not saying this should never be done. Philanthropies should support media. Please, somebody support the media! I just think these things need to be done carefully, completely in the open (e.g., the Guardian, to my knowledge, has not disclosed the amount received from Gates) and with strong reassurance to the public that editorial independence can be maintained.

Of course, all media organizations say they maintain editorial independence. But then, journalists say they are objective and who believes that? The concern is not that the Seattle philanthropy will actively try to direct coverage. Nobody’s that stupid. The concern is that the Gates influence — already great in the field of global health and development — will, in turn, influence the nature and direction of media coverage,

And that alternative views will not be considered equally.

For example, the New York Times quoted David Westin, president ABC News, as saying this about how they plan to decide what to cover in this new partnership:

“He and other ABC News executives met with Dr. Tachi Yamada, the president of the global health program at the Gates Foundation, “to pick his brain,” Mr. Westin said, about the possible areas that could be included in the coverage.”

Okay, but I know a lot of people who disagree with Tachi on lots of issues, and who have never — and likely will never — be allowed to have their brains picked by the head of ABC News and other top media honchos.

The Gates Foundation is correct to want to see more coverage of global health and development news. These issues are not covered near enough and, as a result, many Americans are woefully unaware of what’s happening around the world — and why they should care about these issues.

I used to work at a newspaper. It was great. I loved it. But I struggled to get support to write about this stuff there and have no illusions about the purity of news coverage as it pertains to a commercial enterprise. The philanthropic community and the Gates Foundation could hardly do worse.

But it’s important to do it well. To make sure all voices are heard. There are a lot of lives at stake and a free-wheeling, open dialogue is critical to success in any enterprise (except maybe espionage).

I’ll end by re-posting some slightly different-but-related thoughts from one of my favorite global health and development bloggers, Alanna Shaikh, on the difficulty of getting these stories out — even to those who are already interested:

Here are Alanna’s thoughts.

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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.

  • Crosscut has been pro ed-reform lately and Dick Lily at Crosscut is pro-charter in a state that doesn’t allow charter schools.

    Sometimes I wonder what came first, the pro-charter sentiments at Crosscut or the generous donation made by the Gates Foundation. Either way, it has become a symbiotic relationship.

  • Nicole Caven

    Very interested find as always Tom.