You may or may not have heard of this controversy: the Gates Foundation -- a huge funding source in global health -- has been paying various media sources to ramp up their coverage of global health and development issues. It seems to me that various voices in global health have tended to respond to this as you might expect them to, based on their more general reactions to the Gates Foundation. If you like most of Gates does, you probably see this as a boon, since global health and development (especially if you exclude disaster/aid stories) aren't the hottest issues in the media landscape. If you're skeptical of the typical Gates Foundation solutions (technological fixes, for example) then you might think this is more problematic.
I started off writing some lengthy thoughts on this, and realized Tom Paulson at Humanosphere has already said some of what I want to say. So I'll quote from him a bit, and then finish with a few more of my own thoughts. First, here is an interview Paulson did with Kate James, head of communications at the Gates Foundation. An excerpt:
Q Why does the Gates Foundation fund media?
Kate James: It’s driven by our recognition of the changing media landscape. We’ve seen this big drop-off in the amount of coverage of global health and development issues. Even before that, there was a problem with a lack of quality, in-depth reporting on many of these issues so we don’t see this as being internally driven by any agenda on our part. We’re responding to a need.
Q Isn’t there a risk that by paying media to do these stories the Gates Foundation’s agenda will be favored, drowning out the dissenting voices and critics of your agenda?
KJ: When we establish these partnerships, everyone is very clear that there is total editorial independence. How these organizations choose to cover issues is completely up to them.
The most recent wave of controversy seems to stem from Gates funding going to an ABC documentary on global health that featured clips of Bill and Melinda Gates, among other things. Paulson writes about that as well. Reacting to a segment on Guatemala, Paulson writes:
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.
A few additional thoughts:
Would this fly in another industry? Can you imagine a Citibank-financed investigative series on the financial industry? That's probably a bad example for several reasons, including the Citibank-Gates comparison and the fact that the financial industry is not underreported. I'm having a hard time thinking of a comparable example: an industry that doesn't get much news coverage, where a big actor funded the media -- if you can think of an example, please let me know.
Obviously this induces a bias in the coverage. To say otherwise is pretty much indefensible to me. Think of it this way: if Noam Chomsky had a multi-billion dollar foundation that gave grants to the media to increase news coverage of international development, but did not have specific editorial control, would that not still bias the resulting coverage? Would an organization a) get those grants if it were not already likely to do the cover the subject with at last a gentle, overall bias towards Chomsky's point of view, or b) continue to get grants for new projects if they widely ridiculed Chomsky's approach? It doesn't have to be Chomsky -- take your pick of someone with clearly identifiable positions on international issues, and you get the same picture. Do the communications staffers at the Gates Foundation need to personally review the story lines for this sort of bias to creep in? Of course not.
Which matters more: the bias or the increased coverage? For now I lean towards increased coverage, but this is up for debate. It's really important that the funding be disclosed (as I understand it has been). It would also be nice if there was enough public demand for coverage of international development that the media covered it in all its complexity and difficulty and nuance without needing support from a foundation, but that's not the world we live in for now. And maybe the funded coverage will ultimately result in more discussion of the structural and systemic roots of international inequality, rather than just "quick fixes."