Journalism professor questions benefits and independence of taxpayer-funded journalism
A new state-funded journalism program will spend $25 million through the University of California Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism to increase local reporting.
The taxpayer-funded initiative “will award up to 40 fellows per year for at least three years with a $50,000 annual stipend to supplement their salaries while they work in California newsrooms covering communities in dire need of strong local journalism,” according to the graduate school’s news release. It will be overseen by a yet-to-be named advisory board and students can being applying in May 2023.
It will “combat the gaps in credible local news coverage that have been filled by disinformation,” according to the journalism school’s paraphrase of comments from state senate sponsor Steve Glazer.
“This program builds on that tradition by providing public resources to local media through the creation of a university-run fellowship program whose journalists will be completely independent and operate without any connection to the government or influence from politicians,” Glazer said.
A spokesperson for the program told The College Fix there are no concerns about the ability of the journalists to remain objective and cover statehouse politics despite their funding coming from legislators.
Steven Katz said the initiative will focus on “local journalism” which “could include coverage of relevant state house issues.” However, he said the focus of the news coverage “will be determined between the journalist and their local news editor.” Katz responded “no” to the possibility of losing funding for negative reporting on government officials.
The chief of staff for Sen. Glazer echoed Katz’s comments.
“We don’t have any concern that funding will be taken away based on what the fellows write about,” Daniel Weintraub told The Fix via email. The chief of staff described the flow of funds as a direct transfer from the university to the fellows while they work under editors and private news organizations.
“Even if the governor or someone in the Legislature was upset by a story there would be no way for them to withdraw the funding or end a person’s fellowship,” Weintraub said. “Part of being a good journalist is to report and write without fear or favor.”
He gave the example of his personal experience of writing for The Daily Aztec at San Diego State University, where he criticized the Associated Students frequently “without consequences” despite the newspaper falling under the jurisdiction of the student government.
He said privately funded journalism has its own problems. “I had stories killed because of pressure from major advertisers. So private funding is no guarantee that journalism will be free from influence form the source of funding.”
However, a journalism professor and media critic at DePauw University is not as confident about the ability of state-funded journalists to remain neutral and provide objective information.
“Governments are self interested and there is no way they can be fully distanced from the content produced,” Professor Jeffrey McCall told The Fix. “This initiative funded by Bill 179 might appear well-intentioned on its surface, but beneath there is the motivation to define what information flow is credible and what is not.”
“The free press was created by the nation’s founders precisely to keep journalism in the hands of the public, independent of government structures,” he wrote in his email.
“The establishment of separate oversight boards is insufficient to fully remove financial and content influence from this new program,” McCall said.
When asked about the potential effects of the program on the media, McCall said it likely won’t achieve the impact the legislators expect due to flawed assumption that there is a demand for local news coverage and that citizens will be interested in the content.
McCall said an informed citizenry from greater local news coverage could be beneficial, since self-governance depends on it, but that this is a serious responsibility and the agenda of the program may not meet the needs of the underserved communities.
The Fix asked Professor McCall about possible ways to encourage local journalism. He agreed that it has been suffering in a traditional sense of reporting, but said the issue is whether the government should be involved in fixing the problem. “There is a point where the problems in journalism just have to be solved by the private sector and citizens” he told The Fix.
He said that communities will still communicate through informal means like social media, podcasts and blogs even if traditional journalism in those sectors fail.
IMAGE: Governor of California office/Gov.ca.gov