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BizJournal: Gates Foundation has given BBC $20 million to “shape” stories on maternal, child health

CLARIFICATION: The grant is to the BBC World Service Trust, the charitable arm of the BBC. The Gates Foundation says it is inaccurate to say they are funding the BBC, but the Trust says it “works in partnership with the BBC World Service, and has access to its weekly audience of 180 million listeners in 32 different languages.” Until I can figure out what this means, I’m letting this story stand as it is.

The Puget Sound Business Journal’s Clay Holtzman reports that the Gates Foundation made its largest ever donation to a media organization, the BBC, in December but didn’t publicize the $19.9 million grant.

As Clay reports, there has been a lot of media attention given lately to the Seattle philanthropy’s funding of media — most recently a comprehensive review of the potential conflicts-of-interest inherent in this practice by the Seattle Times. Clay notes:

When the Seattle Times published a lengthy profile of the Gates Foundation’s grants to professional journalists on Feb. 19, the foundation apparently never disclosed that it had already approved its largest award ever to a media organization.

I’ve written plenty about the Gates Foundation’s support for media, about the potential for good as well as the potential problems given that the philanthropy often IS the story when it comes to global health and development.

Based on my discussions with media folk at the philanthropy, I believe they consider it the media organization’s decision (or responsibility) to announce the grant — not theirs.

The $20 million grant to the BBC was announced yesterday among 28 other projects, totaling $82 million, recently funded by the philanthropy.

The Guardian, which has an entire global health and development website funded by the Gates Foundation, has to my knowledge so far failed to publicly disclose the funding arrangement it has established with the world’s biggest philanthropy.

Perhaps this is because the Guardian did not receive a grant but is instead receiving ongoing financial support. If so, that may raise even more questions about maintaining editorial independence.

Personally, I don’t think it’s necessarily a problem or a worrying trend. How could foundation funding of media be any worse than funding by GE or Coca Cola? I admit to absolutely loving The Guardian and see no evidence of the Gates Foundation’s bias shifting the Guardian’s bias.

But it does deserve public attention.The Gates grant to the BBC is devoted to maternal and child health and says it is intended “to shape demand and social norms and improve family health practices” in the impoverished Indian state of Bihar.

That idea of a media organization being funded to “shape demand” kind of worries me, since it sounds more like advocacy than reporting. But we’ll see.

Overall, this funding trend just obligates the media to do a better job of self-scrutiny. In public.

We need to be covering these new and potentially awkward arrangements — of interested parties funding targeted coverage, coverage with do-gooder goals attrached — as the business model for traditional media continues to implode.

UPDATE: The Seattle Times’ Sandi Doughton today weighed in with an article that examines the Gates Foundation’s contention that this is not a grant to a news organization but should be viewed more as a health advocacy grant that happens to use media. Sandi writes:

A new grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation illustrates the way lines have blurred between traditional media and new ways to communicate about health and development…. “This grant does not support the news gathering capacity of the BBC,” foundation spokesman Chris Williams wrote in an e-mail. “This grant is essentially public education.”

But, as I noted in my clarification and Sandi notes in her article, the BBC trust:

“Also ventures into journalism, providing training and technical support for news and media organizations in the developing world. Its website says, ‘We often work in partnership with the BBC World Service, and have access to its weekly audience of 180 million listeners.’ “


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] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.