Karen Peterson: Fact-checking not-so-honest 'watchdog' websites

EXECUTIVE EDITORSeptember 29, 2013 

The email offer was enough to get my attention.

“I wanted to reach out and see if you’d be interested in a content partnership with Watchdog.org, a nonprofit news organization founded in 2009 as a project of the Franklin Center for Government and Public and(sic) Integrity.” They do investigative work out of state capitals across the nation, their media relations coordinator wrote, and their work is picked up by national publications and local papers.

At The News Tribune, we care deeply about watchdog journalism and would love to provide more.

You couldn’t beat the price. “… our primary means of getting our best stories out is through our news partners, and all of our content is free to run in its entirety,” the email said. “We just ask that you credit us.”

I set up a phone call.

But first I did a little research.

Our two main concerns when considering a partnership are the quality of the journalism and the funding source behind it. Our funding comes from you, the readers, and from the advertisers you see in the paper. It’s more difficult to tell with a nonprofit.

Last year, for instance, we partnered with InvestigateWest on immigration stories about the Northwest Detention Center on Tacoma’s tideflats. Their reporter worked alongside ours. We knew her work from her time at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. We knew the nonprofit’s funding sources and, because we did the editing ourselves, knew they hadn’t influenced the story.

In this case, I went first to NWWatchdog.org. Their reporter for Washington has seven years’ experience doing investigative work for newspapers in other states, according to her bio, and has won several awards. That sounded OK. She is based in Portland, however, and most of her recent work is about the Oregon statehouse. I wondered how much Olympia reporting she’d have time for.

More troublesome, a look through the NWwatchdog.org website revealed a list of stories and sources with an anti-taxation and deregulation bent — in some cases a hard bent. The story “Unprecedented power: OR governor can raise taxes during ‘fiscal emergency’” quoted two Republican Oregon legislators, but no Democrats. In “10 people who really hate Oregon’s new Obamacare ad,” the 10 haters include postings connected to conservative columnist Michelle Malkin and anti-taxation guru Grover Norquist, plus eight commenters on NWWatchdog.org’s own story deriding the ad. No one on the other side.

That made me wonder about the funding behind the Franklin Center, which touts “transparency, accountability and fiscal responsibility as our watch words.”

Actually, not so much on the transparency.

Nowhere on the website could I find out who was paying for all the “journalism” they were offering along with their generous hand up because: “Cash-strapped and understaffed, local and regional newspapers often can’t provide the real information that voters need to make good decisions.”

I did more research.

The Center for Public Integrity, a 24-year-old nonpartisan, nonprofit journalism organization (that posts its list of donors on its website), did its own story on the Franklin Center earlier this year.

Their study of Internal Revenue Service documents revealed that 95 percent of the Franklin Center revenue in 2011 came from something called Donors Trust.

“Conservative foundations and individuals use Donors Trust to pass money to a vast network of think tanks and media outlets that push free-market ideology in the states — $86 million in 2011 alone,” the story said, counting conservatives Charles and David Koch among the donors.

I waited for my scheduled phone call. I told the woman from Franklin that I had concerns about bias in their reporting, but more importantly that I couldn’t tell who funded them. They don’t release that information, she told me. Thus ended our conversation.

The Franklin Center is by no means the only outfit hiding its mission and trying to pass off its work as unbiased journalism. It’s just the only one that contacted us directly.

A 2011 study by the Pew Research Center looked at the rise of ideological sites cropping up among “journalism” nonprofits. Among the most ideological were the Franklin Center sites on the right and the American Independent News Network operating in nine states representing the left. These organizations were among the least transparent about who was backing them, the study found.

The lesson here is not that political organizations can’t have a voice. It’s that they shouldn’t be disguised as journalism. We journalism organizations must do our homework before choosing a partner.

And consumers need to understand where their news is coming from. It’s fine to find a voice that appeals to your politics, but you should know who that voice is.

For those interested, the Pew report offered tips for consumers of news nonprofits. They included:

• Check the website’s “About” section to see if it details the mission, background of the staff and source of funding.

• Check that stories on the most controversial topics include competing viewpoints.

• Read several stories and see if the main themes tilt in one political direction over another.

Karen Peterson: 253-597-8434
karen.peterson@thenewstribune.com

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