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Prominent 'Religion News Service' Wire Service Found to Be Taking Funding From Atheist Mogul in Exchange for Coverage of 'Freethinkers' -- Ethical?

Prominent 'Religion News Service' Wire Service Found to Be Taking Funding From Atheist Mogul in Exchange for Coverage of 'Freethinkers' -- Ethical?

"unbelievers to be treated with the same degree of coverage as believers."

  • Religion News Service (RNS) has received $65,000 in funds (2011-2012) from the Stiefel Freethought Foundation, an atheist group
  • Funding was granted to bolster RNS's "coverage of freethinkers"
  • Millionaire Todd Stiefel claims he has no editorial control over RNS coverage
  • RNS's editor-in-chief Kevin Eckstrom defends the gifts and says the outlet is seeking funding from other faith-based foundations as well
  • Poynter's Kelly McBride weighs in on the ethics surrounding the funding

Religion News Service (RNS), a prominent non-profit news organization focused on faith, is facing some of the same financial constraints that have led to the demise of numerous traditional media outlets. As time goes on and revenue becomes tougher to generate, newsrooms like RNS find themselves looking for ways to bring in much-needed funds. One of the more controversial models that the group has embraced is accepting funds from special interest groups.



In the case of RNS, The Stiefel Freethought Foundation (SFF), a hub for the atheist movement, has given $65,000 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 (read our extensive profile about him here), has a very clear goal of organizing atheists, while spreading and advancing non-belief.

An announcement on the SFF web site explains the purpose of an initial $50,000 gift in 2011. Under a section entitled "Accomplishments in 2011," the 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."

A separate notation under 2012 accomplishments touts an additional $15,000 given to RNS "to support the second year of its increased coverage of freethinkers." The SFF made it known that the first year of funding was successful, with RNS purportedly penning 41 stories about the atheist movement.

There are a number of reasons why these gifts may cause controversy and angst, especially on the ethics front. Most mainstream and hard news-driven media outlets adhere to journalistic standards that, on the surface, would make this union suspect. While there are certainly biases to be accounted for, the overall notion is that general news outlets, at least in theory, are supposed to remain non-partisan and unaligned with slanted perspective and special interests.

While there's no direct evidence that RNS violated these standards, 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. Furthermore, RNS is a wire service that numerous outlets (and big ones, at that) subscribe to. The stories that are written aren't just published on the RNS web site; they make their way onto The Huffington Post, The Washington Post and other outlets that pay to publish them.



In an interview with TheBlaze, Stiefel discussed his foundation's gifts to RNS and said that there's nothing that his group is doing that differs from what other religious groups currently engage in. While this may be the case, RNS has not yet received funding from any other special interest foundation or religious entity. Currently, the SFF is the only organization providing monies to the news group.

Stiefel reiterated that the purpose of the grants was to increase awareness of atheists and their increasingly-organized movement. He said that he plays no role in the ideological skew of the content.

"I have absolutely zero control over what they write, what they choose to write about, what goes in [the articles] -- nothing," he told TheBlaze. "Even some of the stories that have been written, I certainly– there have been some stories that weren’t positive about the freethought movement and certain aspects of it." He also made note of two articles that RNS wrote about the atheist movement that were negative in nature. TheBlaze located one of these articles from July 2012 entitled, "Do Atheists Have a Sexual Harassment Problem?"

Among the more interesting elements of the relationship between the SFF and RNS is that the funding that was granted has allowed for a reporter -- Kimberly Winston -- to focus more diligently on the atheist movement. Winston, who has been working freelance with RNS for quite some time, is now able to write much more regularly on the subject for the outlet.

While Stiefel claims he's free to pitch ideas, he says the RNS team rarely uses them. Additionally, Stiefel told TheBlaze that Winston rarely uses him as a source for her stories about atheism.

"If there’s anything I find a little frustrating, they err on the side of not covering things I do or things I’m involved with," Stiefel said of RNS. "I have to accept that they kind of ignore the things I'm involved with – it’s less likely to be covered."

Regardless of the fact that he doesn't have editorial control and that he is sometimes not relied upon for original sourcing, Stiefel says that he plans to continue funding RNS. But he's hoping that other secular groups will join him in footing the bill.

As for critics who take issue with the funding model that RNS has chosen to embrace with the SFF, the atheist leader has a question for them: If a Christian group were donating to RNS and receiving positive coverage as a result, what would your reaction be?


To better understand this arrangement, TheBlaze also spoke with RNS's editor-in-chief Kevin Eckstrom. He explained the news organization's path from being owned by a for-profit corporation (Advanced Publications) to becoming a non-profit organization back in July 2011. This transformation created some intriguing opportunities for the traditional news group. Funding, of course, was at the center of the decision (RNS is now part of the Religion Newswriters Foundation umbrella) to engage Stiefel's foundation.

"Part of the reason [we became a non-profit] was to be able to solicit and accept donor support [and] foundation support both for general corporations and specific projects," Eckstrom explained.

"It just happened, honestly, that The Stiefel Foundation was the first one that we got. Our development director had known Todd and had worked with him in her previous career," he added.

Eckstrom explains that the relationship between RNS and the SFF commenced a few years ago when the Religion Newswriters Association (also an entity under the Religion Newswriters Foundation), also received a donation from Stiefel. The association, which brings together religion reporters from across America, puts together helpful briefs about various faith groups.

At the time, Stiefel donated to help the organization put together an atheism source guide (this is a separate entity and gift from the funds that have been given to RNS). This was the parent organization's first contact with the SFF -- one that led to the current coverage agreement between RNS and Stiefel.

Eckstrom says that it was never RNS's intention to go after funding for atheism coverage. He also noted that the news organization is seeking out other grant proposals that would help bolster coverage of evangelicals, Muslims and other specific faiths and subjects. The SFF arrangement, Eckstrom claims, isn't much different from what National Public Radio (NPR) does to bring in funds on a specific topic (read about NPR's funding strategies here).

Naturally, many would worry about the connections that exist between Stiefel and RNS. Eckstrom mirrored the atheist leader in claiming that the two have very little contact, specifically when it comes to content.

"We have fairly limited contact with the Steifel Foundation by design," he explained. "When we were first talking, we were very clear and we remain very clear that all editorial decisions would be up to us -- that we would not take direction from anyone including the funders in regards to what we could or could not cover."

The editor also says that Stiefel's goal in providing the funding was for "unbelievers to be treated with the same degree of coverage as believers." That being said, Eckstrom reiterates that there are "firewalls" setup to prevent editorial influence from Stiefel and his foundation.



In his interview with TheBlaze, Eckstrom also voiced understanding of critics' concerns that this arrangement appears to be a form of directly paying for coverage.

"I understand those concerns and I'm very sensitive to them and we have tried to think through this as clearly as we can," he admits. "Yes, it's different from the traditional models that journalism has operated under...those models, are in many ways, not sustainable anymore."

Eckstrom also notes that this form of journalism does, indeed, raise more ethical questions than traditional forms would. That being said, he reiterates his hope that other faiths, too, will soon be represented by funders. Despite these issues, he overwhelmingly defends the model and, more specifically, Stiefel's funding of RNS.

"You could make the argument that it's not all that different from a traditional newspaper that takes ads from Sally and Joe's breakfast restaurant and then has to do [a story on] charges of salmonella poisoning there," Eckstrom says.

While this is certainly valid, 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, 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."

Eckstrom says that 80 to 90 percent of the atheism-themed stories on RNS come from Winston's work (which is a direct result of the SFF funding), noting the relationship with Stiefel on the web site could be problematic.

"Not all of our atheist stories comes from Kimberly or the grant -- we have staff writers here who are separate from the grant," he explains. "If we had to label some, we'd have to label all -- it seems kind of redundant and unnecessary."

Despite worries that RNS's coverage could be biased to leave out negative coverage about atheists, Eckstrom -- though sensitive to these fears -- dismisses them. In the end, he claims that the outlet is committed to churning out "fair" and "balanced" coverage and that it "doesn't take sides."

"We don't have a dog in any of these fights," he says, referring to the faith world.

Certainly, RNS does a stellar job informing readers about the many attributes of the faith sphere. That being said -- and this doesn't just go for RNS -- it's perfectly natural to wonder whether negative coverage would lead a funder to pull its support. In the end, funding is something that can essentially be held over a group's head and, subsequently, inadvertently impact coverage.

In the end, this is a consideration that is likely difficult for the outlet, which has proven itself committed to journalistic integrity, to balance.

Eckstrom did note that some of the criticism RNS may receive from this funding news could be rooted in the negative views that many have of atheism and atheists, in particular.

"Part of the reason why this particular one gets questions is because we're dealing with atheist [movement]," he says. "I really question if we received a grant from a Presbyterian foundation, would people be asking the same questions?"



TheBlaze reached out to Kelly McBride of The Poynter Institute -- a journalism ethics organization -- to ask about the standards surrounding the relationship between RNS and the SFF. McBride explains that this model of accepting donations for content isn't uncommon. However, she notes that this must be done with "total independence over what [the outlet can] do with the money."

"Ethically, I think in a journalistic sense you can totally do that as long as you maintain complete editorial control over the product," McBride explains. "So, you don't want to get into a situation where your donor is suggesting news stories -- [or] is suggesting sources."

In the case of RNS, Stiefel did admit to suggesting stories and sources, but it was in a limited capacity that these suggestions were acted upon. When it comes to the ethics of covering the negative aspects that could be associated with a funder, McBride said that journalistic integrity should trump all else.

"As a journalism organization, you are only as good as the journalists who [are] running newsrooms," she continues. "Real journalists will make the tough call -- we will take the fundraising hit if it comes to that."

Journalism is costly and, considering this, it's not uncommon that foundations and groups with an agenda would provide funding to help prop up newsrooms, while also ensuring that specific subject matter gets coverage.

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.

"The whole non-profit news world is really growing up before our eyes," she says. "It doesn't surprise me that they haven't thought through all the disclosure and transparency."

What do you think? Should RNS -- or any outlet for that matter -- be taking funding from foundations with an agenda? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section, below.



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