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In an opinion-rich news ecosystem, transparency matters more than ever

by: Michele McLellan |

July 18, 2011

In an opinion-rich news ecosystem, transparency matters more than ever

A new study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism looks at ideology in the emerging world of nonprofit news sites. The report underscores the importance of consumers knowing who is providing news and where the provider is coming from.

With this latest report, the tired myth of a news ecosystem driven by angry opinion bloggers takes another hit. Instead, the Project for Excellence in Journalism finds that among new sites that focus on state and national news, there is a mix of the ideology-driven reporting and the more balanced approaches.

Interestingly, the study found that as a group, nonprofit sites that have multiple funders tended to be more balanced in their coverage and more transparent about their revenue sources and missions. It points to a half dozen sites that are for the most part run by journalists and have support from foundations as well as increasingly broad bases of donors and commercial revenue streams.

PEJ’s “Non-Profit News: Assessing a New Landscape in Journalism,”  looked at 46 national and state-level news sites and It reviewed more than 1,200 stories from September 2010. It concluded that about half “produced news coverage that was clearly ideological in nature.”

The nonprofit sites with multiple funders were ProPublica, MinnPost, Texas Tribune, California Watch and CT Mirror (Connecticut). Two groups of associated sites - the American Independent News Network and Watchdog.org, scored highest for content driven by ideology, the report said.

To assess ideology, PEJ researchers looked at stories about controversial issues and recorded how many points of view were represented. Most often, stories reflected just one perspective. “The sites that made up the American Independent News Network were the most likely to offer just one perspective on a story,” the report said. “Fully 59% of the articles studied offered all or mostly one point of view, more than double the percentage of stories with two points of view (26%).”

A look at “story themes” - whether stories were framed as pro-liberal or pro-conservative - showed similar trends. Watchdog.org was most reliably pro-conservative (41%) and American Independent sites were most pro-liberal (37%). Nearly half of the stories examined in each group had no theme.

It is impossible to say whether there is a cause-effect relationship between more balance and transparency and having multiple funders. It does seem, however, that the sites with more balance may generally more readily sustainable because they are likely to appeal to a broader base of funders. The sites with multiple funders tended to have larger staffs and story outputs, which the study also assessed.

The study also looked at transparency - about funding sources and mission as well as accessibility of the staff. The more ideological sites tended to be the least transparent, the report concluded, while the more balanced sites tended to be the most transparent. Watchdog.org and Statehouse News were the least transparent. Among commercial sites, transparency was mixed - New West was the most transparent.

Transparency really matters to news consumers

In a digital ecosystem where consumers can discover news and information from diverse sources, it matters less than it used to that some news sites hew to a particular ideology. In the old days, if a dominant newspaper was highly conservative or highly liberal, one might have been hard pressed to find an alternative source of news. Today, people can search a topic and easily find different view points.

But news providers need to state where they are coming from - and news consumers need to look for that information. Perhaps part of the new news literacy is learning to identify and avoid sites that are not fully transparent.

The report notes that in the past sources of revenue for commercial media, such as advertising and circulation were “self evident.” Not so fast. It was obvious who was advertising. But their insidious influence on what got covered was less than apparent and rarely acknowledged, even within the newsroom.

Quibbles aside, the PEJ report is informative reading for anyone who is trying to understand the emerging news ecosystem.

(Disclosure: I was compensated earlier this year by PEJ for my time researching and writing an essay on the economics of community news. That article and this post reflect my own, independent views.)

The News Leadership 3.0 blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

By Michele McLellan, 07/18/11 at 3:58 am

Michele McLellan

Michele McLellan is a writer, editor and consultant who works on projects that help strengthen the emerging local news ecosystem,
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