Are fairness and democracy undercut when journalism falls short of its own standards?

As a journalism professor, I enjoy writing recommendation letters, especially when a student is seeking acceptance to a reputable graduate school like Columbia University’s School of Journalism. I’ve always viewed Columbia as a bastion of journalism excellence and ethical practices.

That’s why I was disappointed to read recently that Columbia is coming under fire for what critics describe as an ethical lapse. It  involved a reporting project that Columbia’s Energy and Environment Reporting Fellowship program undertook with The Los Angeles Times claiming that ExxonMobil hid its own scientific findings that fossil fuels led to climate change.

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The problem, it turns out, is that the Columbia reporting project receives funding from philanthropic organizations whose mission is to bring an end to fossil fuels according to several published reports. “The criticism that Columbia is drawing cuts to the core of its mission,” Richard Osborne, a former reporter, editor and publisher recently wrote in Crain’s Cleveland, “It faces questions about the ethical standards of its journalism after taking money from major critics of the energy industry and then having its students produce what amounted to a hit job on the industry.”

I myself am a champion of environmental justice and generally admire the work of the environmental movement. But the fact that the Columbia fellowship program received money from groups opposed to the fossil fuel industry calls into question the ethical value of an investigation attacking that very same industry.

Unfortunately, Columbia is not alone. InsideClimate News, a lesser-known organization that describes itself as an independent and non-partisan news outlet, published an investigation that also claimed ExxonMobil covered up what its scientists knew about climate change.

Interestingly, InsideClimate News also receives its funding from some of the same organizations opposed to anti-fossil fuel. In addition, a report in National Review published information showing that one environment-minded organization went so far as to provide money for InsideClimate News to report on pollution caused by the extraction of natural gas through fracking, suggesting donors actually have some say in editorial content.

None of this would have warranted much attention beyond journalistic circles were it not for the fact that the reports by Colombia and InsideClimate News have helped fuel calls on Capitol Hill and on the campaign trail for a  Justice Department investigation into whether ExxonMobil deceived the public about the damage fossil fuels pose to the climate.

And in New York, the reports  “added impetus” to an investigation that is now being undertaken by Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, who is looking into whether ExxonMobil deceived investors about the impact that climate change would have on the oil business.

Normally, I celebrate journalism that has the power to raise public awareness, inspire change and impact public policy because that is the news profession’s highest calling. But in order for journalists to legitimately challenge those in power, they are obligated to maintain a level of independence that places them – and their work -- above reproach.

As a journalist myself, I am inclined to side with other journalists and want to believe that the reports by InsideClimate News and Columbia were written with fairness and accuracy in mind. But under the circumstances, I cannot take issue with the questions that have been raised.

These questions are not only fair, but they are necessary given the enormous stakes involved, including journalistic integrity and calls for an investigation by members of Congress.

To some degree, steps have been taken to address the criticism. Both Columbia’s reporting project and The Los Angeles Times eventually disclosed that the funding for their report came from groups like the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, a major opponent of fossil-fuel industries. But those disclosures came after the initial story ran.

The situation involving InsideClimate News raises another set of questions. While it discloses its funders, InsideClimate News appears to be closely affiliated with a public relations firm that gets money from environment-minded groups, according to the National Review article.

Any accomplished journalist will tell you that reporting is hard work, especially when you take on powerful institutions. There is no reason to make that work even harder with reporting methods that undermine the trust of readers.

Edney is editor-in-chief of the Trice Edney News Wire and an adjunct lecturer at the Howard University School of Communications.

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