Academic Research Writings

Crowdfunding independent and freelance journalism: Negotiating journalistic norms of autonomy and objectivity

Quarter: Fall 2015
BISMCS 333: Media and Communication Studies
Professor: Susan Harewood

Andrea Hunter argues that the practice of journalists using crowdfunding in order to fund their projects creates conflict between their role as objective reporters and their responsibility to their funders. She also argues that the practice of crowdfunding challenges the fundamental elements of objectivity and autonomy within journalism. Hunter uses several interviewees, some with experience working in legacy media, who have successfully funded their projects through crowdfunding on spot.us, a website specifically designed for journalism.

News has become more freely available than ever before, rapidly changing the structure of the news industry. “In recent years, news organizations …have been struggling to find business models in an internet era where increasingly there is the expectation that information-including news-should be free (p.273).”  People can easily and conveniently find news by scrolling down their Facebook homepage or by browsing other mobile applications. This leaves legacy news declining rapidly. With this decline in funding, there is a reduction in jobs within the media. This is a problem that not only threatens news workers but it also has negative effects on our representative government, “One of the major concerns is that what is being lost in the midst of cuts and closures is original and investigative journalism– journalism that is seen as vital to democracy, (p.273)”. Investigative journalism is what keeps politicians accountable, it can be seen as a part of a checks and balances relationship between the government and the people. Investigative journalism keeps the public informed and holds their representatives accountable. Political scandals, misconduct and injustice do not come to light on their own but it takes salaried journalists to be committed to do the work it takes in order to research and uncover these stories. Leaving journalism struggling to fund itself is not only a crime to the media industry but also to democracy.

Crowdfunding has been used as a resource in order to rectify this issue. Spot.us, a new platform, is the only crowdfunding site of its kind that specifically made for journalists and also places limitations on funders, not allowing one person to fund more than 20% of the project. Other sites that are popular, like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, do not have these restrictions but are also are not designed for journalism. In creating this maximum limit per donor Spot.us directly addresses the ethical question of, “What sort of control does the audience have in shaping the news?” There is a concern that crowdfunding journalists as producer and marketers of their news content are unable to be objective and autonomous in their reporting because they need to appease to their donors.

Crowdfunding inevitably effects journalists’ ability to remain impartial due to their innate feeling of responsibility to their audience. All of the interviewees are freelance journalists looking to fund independent projects and used crowdfunding in order to tell stories that they felt were not receiving, “adequate coverage by legacy media (p.278)”. Hunter explains that the decision to crowdfund was not only a response to legacy media reporting, “it is a way for them to do journalism in a time when jobs are scarce. There simply are not a lot of fulltime, or even part-time jobs, for journalists, and freelance budgets are also drying up”. Many journalists were forced into starting up their own projects because of scarce job opportunities, they were not simply rebelling against legacy media coverage.

Due to the fact that crowdfunding is a new and unique funding platform for journalists, they have created unique relationships with their funders in an attempt to remain balanced, truthful, and ethical. “The idea of accepting money from potentially interested parties is one that journalists wrestle with and they try to maintain a sense of distance from their funders in terms of editorial control.” The journalists use different methods of maintaining distance from their donors such as not accepting money from parties who are directly involved or refusing to look at the list of who has donated, but all of them have the common idea that donors not influencing their production, Hunter calls this the ‘imagined firewall’. Hunter also noticed a troubling trend, “It is a problematic notion – marrying point of view with facts – but these journalists feel that you can be upfront about your point of view, and create valuable journalism that presents facts as they see them (p.283)”. Some of the journalists believed that letting one’s own point of view in the story, intentionally being biased and not impartial, was helpful in their reporting.

In conclusion, the use of crowdfunding in journalism places new responsibilities on the audience as well as the journalists, redefining the roles that these members play in the production of the media. News workers walk a fine line in trying to please their audience in reporting in order to market to them. Hunter makes a few suggestions for crowd funders to take advantage of the platform while also addressing its limitations by explicitly stating their stance on editorial control as well as if they would like active investors, who play a role in the production, or passive investors, who do not play a role. Making these objectives clear will help solidify the roles of the audience and the journalist as well as address some ethical concerns. Crowdfunding is a great resource for struggling journalist, especially in this time of transition between legacy and new media but in order to legitimize the practice journalists using this platform must be as objective as possible and explicitly clear about the role of the audience and themselves in the production process.

Source:

Hunter, A. (2015). Crowdfunding independent and freelance journalism: negotiating journalistic norms of autonomy and objectivity. New media and society. 17. 272-288

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About Amani Sawari

I am a University of Washington alum, Class of 2016. I graduated with my Bachelors Degree in two majors: Media and Communications AND Law, Economics and Public Policy. It’s a mouthful but it illustrates how I have a hard time doing only one ‘thing’. I am a writer, poet, singer, songwriter and much more. I enjoy sharing my experiences and perspectives with those who are interested and I am a proud member of the black diaspora!

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