Critical Thinking: Should There Be Expanded Government Funding For Public Media News Reporting?

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By: Heidi Kulicke

Q: Should there be congressional authorization of tax breaks, expanded government funding for public media news reporting, and a national fund for local news?

Beth Elderkin, 26, journalism senior at San Diego State University
Elderkin is managing editor of SDSU’s The Daily Aztec student newspaper. Her focus is on multimedia and social media journalism. She would like to work as a multimedia “backpack journalist” for a news organization after graduating in May 2012.

As a journalism student graduating next year to a market facing increasing layoffs, consolidation and pay cuts, I suppose I should be thrilled at the idea of government assistance in the public media and local news reporting fields.

After all, a public media journalist’s job is to increase public awareness of vital issues and government activities. In addition, local reporters bring the news that relates to people’s everyday lives, which often includes local government goings-on.

So if we journalists are serving the government by reporting its actions, shouldn’t it in return give us some money to do so?

Allow me to become an enemy of my own demographic by replying no.

The reason is simple: Journalists serve the public, not the government.

Journalists are here to bring government to the people, not the other way around. Tax breaks, government funding, or a national fund for local news could change that.

By allowing the government to financially dip its toes into the journalism field, the line that separates media from government is blurred. Suddenly, news reporting has an all-new conflict of interest, in which government officials can play the “you owe me” card to conceal information the public ought to know about.

If journalists owe job security to the government, how can the public trust that their news sources are reporting all the facts, instead of just the ones officials say are fit to print?

Our constitutionally protected freedom of the press can only exist if we as journalists remain separate from the government we are working to keep open and honest.

The public is our demographic, and it should continue writing our checks.

Craig Klugman, 66, editor of The Journal Gazette (Fort Wayne, Ind.)
Klugman has been editor of The Journal Gazette since 1982. Earlier, he taught journalism at Northwestern University and worked at The Chicago Sun-Times. He graduated from Indiana University and serves on the IU School of Journalism’s Publications Board.  

Not only no, but hell no.

What the government gives us, it can take away. If you doubt that, look at these headlines about one news organization that gets tax dollars:

  • “DeMint vows to strip federal funding from NPR.” (Post & Mail, Charleston, S.C. Oct. 22, 2010)
  • “NPR’s mea culpa adds fuel to the fire over federal funding.” (L.A. Times, Jan. 7)
  • “NPR woes escalate as House votes to strip its federal funding.” (Christian Science Monitor, March 17)

Tax dollars, however disbursed, give government the right to monitor how they’re spent. It is a guarantee that some of our stories will rile elected officials with say over those dollars or tax breaks.

Our credibility will be shot. Who’ll believe we’re honest and fair when government is underwriting us? How long before we are considered a part of the establishment? Indeed, its mouthpiece?

People will tire of spending money with no return. Underwriters will lose patience with organizations that produce long, complicated stories that seem to get no response. And they will tire faster if they’re underwriting routine news coverage of, say, a city hall that has no corruption or a county government that’s less than interesting.

Are we incompetent? It’s our industry, and it’s our job to save it. News is a valuable commodity. In this time of cutbacks, declining revenue, and rising angst, news organizations have never had the influence they have now. We are consumed in states and countries where most of us have never thought we would be read. We can tell stories in as many ways as there are ways.

If we can’t figure out how to survive, we ought to fail.

One thought on “Critical Thinking: Should There Be Expanded Government Funding For Public Media News Reporting?

  • November 21, 2011 at 5:41 pm

    Which poses the greater risk for journalists or media outlets to have to respond to; the government or economic powers? I say economic powers. Albeit, these 2 are already grossly intertwined, but for the purpose of this question, I would see economic powers as a far greater threat, at least on the level of transparency. While any funding or de-funding that occurs on behalf of the government will likely be an issue of very public debate (not to mention difficult for the government to be seen as directly trying to control the output of public media), investment transparency in media by private economic interests is far easier to manipulate. I’m sorry, but isn’t the news media often already considered the mouthpiece for economic powers, underwritten by the private interests that fund them? If accepting money from the government will kill journalistic credibility, than how has NPR’s credibility survived (or, according to some conservatives, continued to have a ‘leftist’ slant, regardless of who is in office)? I agree full-heartedly that not having to respond to the desires of funders would be an ideal situation for journalists. I also agree that it is dangerous for a media outlet to depend on a funding source as changing as the government. However, is it not already the case that journalists are already often (more often than not) in the unfortunate position of having to respond to whoever is behind their funding? It seems that the government is in less of a position to have the freedom to involve itself directly in the journalistic process than important economic interests are-and they do involve themselves directly. An ideal situation would be for the public to be in a position to fund news outlets. While not impossible, I think that it is very difficult for individual contributions to compete with the financial power of large economic interests.


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