A six-figure donation from a gay rights advocacy organization to the group that funds the Religion News Service has had no impact on the nonprofit media group’s coverage of controversial topics, according to its editor.
In an interview with Crux, RNS editor Kevin Eckstrom defended the $120,000, one-year grant from the Arcus Foundation to the Religion Newswriters Foundation, the corporate parent of RNS, to cover LGBT issues.
“All editorial decisions across the board, whether they are for projects that are grant-funded, or our regular day-to-day news coverage, are made independently of anybody’s agenda, anybody’s budget, anybody’s support or non-support,” he said.
The grant was announced in a statement released by the Arcus Foundation last September.
“Fostering a culture of LGBT understanding through the media is the aim of grants to the Religion Newswriters Foundation — to produce feature stories and blog posts about religion and LGBT communities of color,” the statement read.
It goes on to say that the grants were given to “emerging leaders and activists who will guide the LGBT movement over the next generation.”
Last week, the Catholic News Agency reported on the grant, linking it to an RNS story about Cardinal Raymond Burke’s comments on homosexuality that critics say misrepresented the American prelate’s comments about the nature of sin.
(Crux subscribes to the Religion News Service, the Catholic News Service, Associated Press, and the New York Times News Service. It ran the RNS Burke story March 27.)
Eckstrom rejected the idea that Arcus influenced RNS reporter David Gibson’s story, saying that the grant money is used only for stories about LGBT communities of color, and that so far, the money has not funded any reports about Catholicism.
“The money that we receive from Arcus only goes to cover LGBT communities of color, period,” he said. “So the Cardinal Burke story that got attention was not funded by that grant.”
He said future stories about LGBT communities of color in the Catholic Church are in the works, but noted that those stories would come with a disclaimer stating that Arcus provided the funding for those stories. Whether or not RNS subscribers publish that disclaimer, he said, is up to them.
He acknowledged critics who say the grant calls into question RNS’ independence, but rejected the notion that his reporters are compromised.
The Religion Newswriters Foundation has previously accepted grants from individual donors and foundations to expand its coverage of religion and the environment, religion and women’s spirituality, and international religious freedom, among other issues.
“What we do is basic, fair, and honest journalism. We don’t do advocacy. I guess I can see the perception, but the reality is that everything that RNS does is committed to balanced and fair coverage of all communities, all faiths, non-faiths. That’s what we do,” he said. “No amount of support or non-support from anybody is going to change that.”
Eckstrom said “it’s not clear” if the foundation will reapply for the grant in 2015. He said foundation officials have not been in contact with RNS about the conflict-of-interest issue raised by the Catholic News Agency.
“They haven’t raised it with us, and we haven’t raised it with them in part because from our vantage point, there is no connection between the funding we receive and the tenor of the coverage that we do,” he said.
Eckstrom said that nonprofit journalism agencies are “experimenting” with funding models, and acknowledged, “there are a lot of models that, frankly, end up not working.”
But, he said, both nonprofit media organizations such as National Public Radio and traditional for-profit newspapers have always had to deal with the perception of conflict about money, whether from donations or from advertisers.
“One of the things all nonprofit organizations are discovering is that donations and foundation support are perhaps a little bit more complicated than we’d like it to be only because of perception question,” he said. “At least in our minds there is no conflict of interest between the folks who support our mission and the work that we do.”