Media Ethics Questioned after Atheists Fund Reporting

Writing at TheBlaze, Billy Hallowell raises questions about the ethics of the Religion News Service (RNS) after he describes their decision to accept funding from an activist atheist — without publicly acknowledging they had done so.

The Stiefel Freethought Foundation (SFF), a hub for the atheist movement, has given $65,000 [to the Religion News Service] over the past two years to help fund coverage of non-believers and the so-called “freethought” movement. The organization, run by atheist millionaire Todd Stiefel…, has a very clear goal of organizing atheists, while spreading and advancing non-belief.
Under a section entitled “Accomplishments in 2011,” the [SFF] site reads, “SFF donated $50,000 to Religion News Service to bolster its coverage of freethinkers with a series of news, investigations, feature stories and photos.”

Hallowell says “most” news organizations would find this relationships “suspect,” and questions if the donation might influence the tone of reporting:

Taking money from a special interest group in the faith sphere causes one to wonder how rigorously — or honestly — the subject of atheism was explored.

If this sounds familiar, it should.  Hallowell is referring to the issue raised here regarding the RNS reporting of Kimberly Winston, who has written veritable “press releases” for atheists.  These articles have included stories on the atheist counter-Christian “Rock Beyond Belief” organized by atheist Army SGT Justin Griffith, which was an event funded almost entirely by Stiefel — which means he conveniently funded both the event and the positive press that accompanied it.

For his part, Stiefel says he “plays no part” in the RNS reporting, though he admits to making suggestions of stories for them to cover.  He is also “rarely” used as a source for reporting, which, ironically enough, amounts to an admission he has been used as a source — seemingly for no other reason than he is a financial contributor.

More troubling is the fact neither the RNS nor Winston ever disclosed this relationship in their reporting, something the RNS attributed to being busy:

TheBlaze did explore how fervently RNS made Stiefel’s funding known to readers. A search conducted on the organization‘s web site didn’t show any notation that the $65,000 had been received by RNS. When asked about this, [RNS’s editor-in-chief Kevin] Eckstrom said that, over the past year, the outlet has gone through a major evolution in moving from a for-profit to a non-profit model.
“When we were getting off the ground, it was an absolute chaotic mess. We were moving offices, changing computer systems,” he said. “It was just sort of a gigantic whirlwind. I think this was one of the things that fell between the cracks — there was never a decision not to publicize.”

This becomes troublesome because the RNS provides a wire service, meaning the articles are republished on other sites — again, without the attribution that the source article was funded by an activist atheist.

Hallowell cites Kelly McBride of The Poynter Institute, “a journalism ethics organization,” who seemed to agree:

While RNS isn’t necessarily violating journalistic standards, on the transparency front, McBride notes that the outlet should probably be upfront that it’s receiving funds from the SFF. She says “it makes sense to be really transparent” and to create a place on the news group’s web site where its policies and funding information is available.

It’s not entirely out of sorts for an activist organization to hire a PR person, or for a news organization to accept donations.  In the very least, however, the groups should publicly acknowledge the existence of such a relationship, and leave it to the reader to decide if such a relationship colors the reporting.

In the end, if you thought there was an uptick in positive stories on the atheist “movement,” you were right: After all, they paid for it.