Friday, November 5, 2010

The new new firewalls

Greetings! I'm Jim Downing and I'll be blogging the partners and ethics in the new media era session (Saturday, 2:15 p.m.), which will explore the ethical questions raised by the rising influence of non-traditional journalism funders, such as foundations, the private sector and government. Is it sufficient to be transparent about who's paying for a story? And if not, what can we do about it?

For most of the last six years, I was a reporter at the Sacramento Bee, covering climate change policy, the energy sector and agriculture. I've been freelancing since March, and my projects have so far been funded by, among others, a professional organization, pharmaceutical companies, a veterinary medical organization and a government agency. The firewalls between the funders and me have varied in thickness. While I do my best to stick to the ethical principles I learned in the newspaper business, it's certainly true that the funders have influenced the shape of these stories -- chiefly, I think, by deciding what's important or interesting enough to write about in the first place. I've been figuring out how to handle these issues as I go, and I've been struck, in retrospect, by what a luxury it was to be able to refer difficult ethical questions up the chain of command at a newspaper.

I'm based in Oakland, Calif., where my wife and I are preparing for the arrival of our first child (due in five weeks) and a move to Minneapolis (where my wife will be starting a postdoc in environmental engineering next summer).

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