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Behind the scenes with the Gates Foundation’s ‘strategic media partners’

media horde Flickr
Flickr, MMR d

Just kidding.

I wasn’t actually allowed behind the scenes at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s recent meeting in Seattle entitled “Strategic Media Partnerships.”

The Gates Foundation funds a lot of media – more than $25 million in media grants for 2012 (but still less than 1% of the budget). 

I’m media but I wasn’t invited. I asked if I could come and report on it, but was told the meeting was off the record. Those attending included representatives from the New York Times, NPR, the Guardian, NBC, Seattle Times and a number of other news organizations, non-profit groups and foundations. Not all were grant recipients, or partners. Some just came to consult.

Spoiler alert: Nothing sinister happened. But there’s still a story here.

The public doesn’t see much coverage of the media’s collaboration with the Gates Foundation. Yet it’s substantial, influential and, despite the media’s distaste for reporting on itself, I feel compelled. So here’s my news analysis….

I should note that because I have no editor or talent for personal restraint, I intend to expand my analysis to the broader issue of the Gates Foundation’s multiple ‘messaging’ avenues for influencing the public narrative. Media and messaging.

More personal disclosure: I think it’s a good thing the Gates Foundation has decided to shore up the crumbling media business. Somebody has to pay for journalism and chances are you, yeah you, don’t pay your fair share. The full-page ads for women’s underwear, tires and the latest gizmos just don’t cut it anymore. NPR’s new global health beat is partially paid for by Gates. The Guardian’s Global Development page is as well.

The news business is in a tailspin, coverage has shrunk and philanthropic funding of journalism is increasingly what keeps many news operations (like Humanosphere) up and running. But this shift from selling lingerie to rich do-gooders supporting the news likely deserves more public attention. What does it mean for the Gates Foundation to move from mere underwriting or media sponsorship to more active involvement as a strategic media partner?

Outside of the Gates media confab last week, I talked to a number of participants – usually ‘off the record’ – to learn that it was mostly a discussion about the sorry state of the media and how to improve coverage of neglected issues that concern the philanthropy in areas like global health, foreign aid, development and education. Media folks presented case studies, ideas and mulled over measuring impact – because that’s what Bill and Melinda want, measurable impacts.

The Gates Foundation also wants to improve the narrative on aid and development, the fight against poverty. Many others (including Humanosphere) want that as well.

So who would kick against improving the aid narrative?  

Well, as a journalist who covers global health and poverty and is expected to double-check and unpack the often carefully packaged messages put out by the Gates Foundation, I can tell you that quite a few people – again, mostly ‘off the record’ – do kick. They’re not opposed to the overall goal, but many are concerned about the immense influence the philanthropy already has over the aid narrative.

One of the Gates Foundation’s working assumptions is that the aid narrative is a bummer, mostly bad news, and what we need is more ‘success stories.’

Tom Scott
Tom Scott

“Our research has shown that people see, or at least remember, the stories that highlight waste and ineffectiveness in foreign aid more than they do the positive stories,” said Tom Scott, director of global brand and innovation at the foundation. “It’s harder to break through with the stories of success so that’s our emphasis.”

Here’s a recent post by Tom, about the Gates Foundation’s support for a new Oxfam ad campaign that takes a positive tack on Africa.

Another of the presumed assumptions at the foundation frequently targeted by critics is that the philanthropy favors technical and business-minded solutions while ignoring a lot of the messy political, legal and economic drivers of poverty and injustice. I think there’s evidence that this narrowed focus is broadening a bit, but the criticism persists.

In addition to funding key media, the Gates Foundation is the primary funder of the ONE Campaign, arguably one of the more effective anti-poverty advocacy groups out there. The foundation supports a number of other organizations as well which advocate on global health, aid and development (not to mention education, which I don’t cover).

It needs to be emphasized that there is a big difference — at least there’s supposed to be, in intent and methods – between media and advocacy.

Dan Green
Dan Green

Dan Green, a highly respected journalist and now director of media partnerships for the Gates Foundation, has by all accounts built a sturdy firewall at the philanthropy between grants to news organizations and anything to do with the foundation’s advocacy projects.

“I think I’ve made it super clear that the last thing the Gates Foundation would ever want to do is diminish the integrity and credibility of its grantees,” Dan said.

“Our goal with these media grants is to get more information out there and encourage deeper public engagement,” he said. “The average American believes foreign aid represents more than 10 percent of the federal budget (it’s less than 1%). Our goal is more and better information. “

Whether it’s okay for media organizations to collaborate with the Gates Foundation on its goal of improving the aid narrative depends not on the philanthropy, one leading journalist said, but on the media:

Dick Tofel, president of the investigative news organization ProPublica, said to me: “Dan’s job is to advance the agenda of the Gates Foundation. In all my years of dealing with him I’ve never seen any indication of improper influence. But you also can’t expect the Gates Foundation not to push its own agenda … The ethical onus is on the press to maintain its independence and integrity.”

True, but the media is having a hard time lately just keeping its pants up and the lights on, let alone trying to preserve its integrity. When one of your major financial backers says it wants to see success stories, what’s most likely to happen?

The Gates Foundation is today one of the most influential organizations in the world when it comes to messaging on global health and, increasingly, global poverty.  It’s clear Bill and Melinda believe the aid narrative can be improved with more success stories and reporting on areas of progress. The philanthropy’s blog isn’t called Impatient Optimists for nothing.

Clearly, the foundation’s messaging already has had an impact. When Bill Gates recently appeared on the spoof news show The Colbert Report, the audience cheered loudly when he mentioned how close the world has come to eradicating polio.

Ten years ago, believe me, the audience would have just sat there in confused silence at the mention of polio.

“In that same appearance, Bill also talked about how dramatically child mortality has fallen worldwide ,” said Dan, noting the audience also cheered at that. “Most people don’t know that child mortality rates have improved so much … Our goal in changing the narrative is to make it more accurate. We need to talk about what’s working as well as what’s not working.”

Yet in some of its earlier grants to media, the Gates Foundation specifically said they wanted grant recipients to focus on ‘success stories.’ While well-intentioned, any media organizations who accepted those marching orders (and many did) arguably neglected some basic tenets of journalism. One tenet has been that we shouldn’t take money in return for doing a specific story. So should we be taking money for doing categories of stories? The lines are fuzzy ….

The Gates Foundation has also funded a competitive grant program called “Aid is Working” which Tom Scott administers. Though not a part of the media partnerships program, some of its projects are to media. One of the grants is for journalism students at Boston University to ‘create news stories focusing on successful aid projects’ and get them placed in ‘mainstream media outlets.’ Lot of red flags there.

Two other very prominent journalists working on one of the “Aid is Working” Gates grants are David Bornstein and Tina Rosenberg, who write for the Fixes column at the New York Times. Bornstein and Rosenberg were also at the “strategic partners” confab at the Gates Foundation last week.

I had been talking to David already about their concept of Solutions Journalism. I first wrote about the concept here when the two were named as recipients of the Gates grant. David emphasizes that he and Tina did not receive the grant money but rather are collaborating with the academics who did. Whatever.

Now, I think David and Tina are on to something with their push to get journalists to move beyond simply pointing out what’s wrong and to include a focus on solutions. They work hard to distinguish what they mean by ‘solutions journalism’ from advocacy and especially from ‘good news’ stories. Says Tina:

Tina Rosenberg
Tina Rosenberg

We don’t believe anyone should write “good news” stories for the sake of balance. We don’t believe in writing or avoiding stories because they would raise or lower the approval ratings for foreign aid, or any other program. But we think journalists should write the whole story. Stories on issues in the developing world will be stronger, more accurate, and more complete if we not only highlight a problem, but also include attempts to solve that problem – successful, unsuccessful or partially successful. Every attempt at a solution provides useful information, and it’s important to learn from it.

The two NYT Fixers talked about solutions journalism at the Gates media meeting. Most I talked to supported it in concept, though some felt it wasn’t that different from any in-depth reporting project. A number of journalists, including me, remain concerned that making reporters responsible for emphasizing solutions – along with this Gates push for ‘success stories’ – could undermine basic watch-dogging.

I think the risk for that is especially high in the aid and development field.

The reality is sometimes aid doesn’t work. Sometimes, things are not successful. And most of us already don’t like to talk about failure.

In the aid and development field, there are perhaps even stronger incentives than in business or government to hide failure. Advocates don’t want to undermine what may seem like already weak public support for their endeavors. Donors are notoriously fickle and tend to abandon projects at the first sign of malaise. Some important problems don’t have clear solutions.

Was the disaster relief effort in Haiti a success story? Many experts say it was rather a huge failure, based on the fact that life in Haiti still largely sucks. Yet how many lives were saved in the response? Should we talk about what failed in Haiti or just try to focus our attention on something more positive?

Two articles posted or linked to in Humanosphere recently raised these concerns about focusing on success and good news. The ‘failure to address failure’ in global health was by Sam Loewenberg in the New York Times (not the Fixes column). The other was by Humanosphere’s Tom Murphy who raised some critical questions about Oxfam’s ad campaign emphasizing what’s going well in Africa and the new trend of emphasizing Good News! Read both if you haven’t already.

Both Sam and Tom believe, as I do, that there is growing concern within the aid and development community not so much with an emphasis on bad news as with a lack of news — a lack of in-depth reporting on the global fight against poverty. In Europe and in Britain, these issues are frequently covered in some depth by the media and are part of the regular political and public dialogue. Why does that happen there and not here? Will more success stories lead to a more informed public dialogue?

Maybe. I don’t know. I’m not sure what might be the best solution for changing the aid narrative – because I’m not certain I understand the problem.

What I am fairly certain of is that as journalists and news organizations come to depend increasingly on philanthropies like the Gates Foundation for financial support, it is even more important than ever that we stay focused on our main job – arguably, pushing for critical analysis and accountability – and tread carefully when asked to strategically partner with even the most well-intentioned humanitarian in promoting a cause … or solution.


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.