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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.


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.