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Can journalists donate money to social causes?

Kathleen Bartzen Culver is the James E. Burgess Chair in Journalism Ethics, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics, and an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

In these “hyper-partisan” times — and with a presidential election around the corner — journalists are under more scrutiny than ever. 

Most news organizations prohibit contributions to political candidates, parties and campaigns. But how does this vigilance apply to charitable donations? Should journalists avoid giving money to social causes or charities, too? 

We spoke with Kathleen Bartzen Culver, the James E. Burgess Chair in Journalism Ethics, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics and an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism & Mass Communication, about policies and guidelines news organizations can adopt for journalists who may wish to donate to charities or social causes.

What are ethical considerations for journalists who wish to donate money to charities or social causes?

Culver: This is another of those cases in which journalists have to be concerned not just with the reality of a conflict of interest, but also the appearance of one. As a reporter, I may well be able to donate to causes that matter to me and remain able to use objective methods in reporting. Yet some people may be able to use that donation as a cudgel when accusing me of bias. 

The key question for journalists is: Does this donation adversely affect my ability to report fairly? If it doesn’t, how would I explain that to someone who feels otherwise? 

Do journalists have an obligation to disclose their donations and why?

Culver: I do not believe journalists surrender their personal lives when they take on this work. We are allowed to be people too and support causes that matter to us. However, if the donation is in any way related to your coverage area, I believe you have a duty to disclose. Also, remember that hidden donations can be weaponized against you. Most often, the more transparent you are, the better. 

Can you describe any policies you are aware of that journalists should know when it comes to donations?

Culver: I’m not coming up with any specific codes or outlets, but in general, I’ve heard a number of these over the years:

  • Do not donate to any political campaign or party.
  • Do not use the employer’s name and logo if sharing a personal donation through social media.
  • Do not donate to any cause closely related to issues or people you cover. 
  • Donate only to non-partisan causes. 

That last one gives me pause. In these hyper-partisan times, causes and issues have been politicized in ways I wouldn’t have predicted. A few months ago, a journalist might have been moved to donate money or materials to produce masks in response to COVID-19. Now wearing a mask appears to be “taking a side.” 

What advice do you have for journalists who were inspired to go into the field by a passion for advocacy? What can they do to support causes without jeopardizing their position?

Culver: My best advice is to find an outlet that allows you to do the work you find most meaningful. If you are driven by that passion for advocacy, an anchor spot on your local TV station is likely not the right choice. We can use reportorial skills to promote causes but have to choose the right organization to support that work. Not everyone needs to be a neutral journalist. If the interest is less about using your skills and more about directing your financial resources through donations, I think that’s an easier needle to thread. 

Might there be an exception for issues like freedom of the press or pro-democracy movements? 

Culver: I think donations by journalists to support journalism are easier to justify ethically. I think there’s virtually no argument that reporters should not support a free press. But “pro-democracy” is a looser term, so again, journalists should think about the nature of the cause and whether supporting it would cause a conflict of interest. 

For newsrooms that don’t have a policy on donations, can you offer advice on how to implement one? 

Culver: As with any good policy, the place to start with implementation is open conversation with everyone who has a stake in the issue. Broad-based discussion with those who are affected is always a critical element of ethical journalism.