A Special Project to Defend America’s Fourth Estate

April 24, 2018

Journalism plays many roles in our democracy. At its best, it informs people about critical issues in ways that builds agency; it reflects the diverse lives of our nation back to us in ways that strengthen communities; it provides a public square where ideas can be debated; and it interrogates systems and institutions in ways that hold power to account.

Since Democracy Fund was founded, we have been investing in people and organizations who are working to strengthen journalism and local news to ensure a brighter future for our democracy. We are helping rebuild local news business models, fostering bold new collaborations, and reimagining the social contract between newsrooms and communities.

That long-haul work continues, but one year ago Democracy Fund announced a new effort focused specifically on bolstering and defending journalism’s ability to serve as a robust fourth estate. Alarmed by the escalating political attacks against journalists and concerned about what those threats meant for the public’s access to information, we made the largest grants in our organization’s history.

Defending America’s Fourth Estate

In March 2017, along with our colleagues at First Look Media, we committed $10 million over two-years to the Center for Investigative Reporting, Center for Public Integrity, the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University, and ProPublica. Recognizing the essential role of local and state investigative journalism we also contributed $1 million to NewsMatch, which helped 109 nonprofit newsrooms raise nearly $5 million in the last few months of 2017 (read more about the results of NewsMatch here). Together these grants make up our special project on investigative reporting, which seeks to ensure nonprofit newsrooms are prepared to face new and mounting challenges.

The last year has been a profound reminder of the critical role of a bold, trustworthy, and free press. Our grantees have produced hard hitting public interest reporting on the financial conflicts of interest in the current administration, social media’s impact on democracy, the rise of hate crimes, as well as on the upheavals and changes shaping education, environmental issues, and immigration.

  • Every single one of our grantees had at least one story that revealed conflicts of interest or wrongdoing that resulted in meaningful policy change, divestments and resignations.
  • ProPublica’s reporting on social media platforms and algorithms sparked Facebook to change its advertising policy and spurred NYC to pass the country’s first bill to address algorithmic discrimination in city government.
  • The Center for Investigative Reporting and Center for Public Integrity launched a “Citizen Sleuths” program to engage thousands of people in digging into the financial disclosure records for more than 400 appointees.
  • The Center for Public Integrity compiled state disclosure reports into a searchable library, revealing how state lawmakers use their position to enrich themselves.

These are just a few of the headlines from the past year. Our grantees also produced life-saving reporting on maternal health, revelations about housing discrimination, and an Oscar nominated film on the opioid crisis that was picked up by Netflix.

Accountability Reporting and Being Accountable Ourselves

All of these investments were general operating grants, which means there were no strings attached to how the grants had to be used. Grantees had total freedom to use the funds as they saw fit for the unique needs of their organizations, communities, and beats. In addition, Democracy Fund has an editorial policy written into our grant agreements that mandates we cannot speak to our grantees about content decisions. We believe this kind of independence is critical, especially with grants of this size.

In the end, the freedom these grants provided didn’t just produce more journalism, but also created opportunities to rethink and reimagine how that journalism was done. In an era of dwindling trust for journalism, integrity has to be at the heart of newsrooms and foundations. Each of these newsrooms have opened up their process to their readers, engaging people in the reporting process, and bringing profound transparency to their process.

The Center for Investigative Reporting held community forums and opened up a text message line to answer questions from communities across the country about their investigation into modern day redlining. ProPublica built a crowdsourcing app called the Facebook Political Ad Collector which collects ads on Facebook to enable ProPublica to better monitor political ads on social platforms. The Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University paired journalism students with NPR and Frontline journalists to investigate the housing crisis.

These are not just clever innovations, but critical interventions that put the public at the heart of investigative journalism. The ability of the press to serve as a check and balance on power is rooted in the legitimacy and trust bestowed upon it by the public. As such, to hold our leaders accountable, we need to hold our communities close and be accountable ourselves.

We look forward to continuing to share, and to be accountable, as this special project continues.

Grantees of the Investigative Journalism Project include the following:

Democracy Fund
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