SEJ Promotes Science-Journalism Connection, Alters Funding Policy To Build More Stable Organization

April 15, 2011

SEJ President's Report

By CAROLYN WHETZEL

SEJ ushered in 2011 with an event at the University of California, Santa Barbara that explored the communication challenges journalists and scientists face.

SEJ’s Board of Directors, other SEJ members, and scientists at UCSB’s Bren School of Environmental Science and Management participated in the Jan. 28 roundtable discussion which focused on how to meld the different worlds in which journalists and scientists work toward a shared goal of advancing public understanding of environmental issues.

Scientists voiced their concerns about being misquoted or having their comments or research misinterpreted, which is why they often ask to approve quotes, or sometimes an entire story. The scientists also sought advice on how to cultivate relationships with journalists to promote research they believe is getting too little attention.

Journalists stressed their need for trusted science sources and information and for quick responses when writing on deadline. The journalists urged the scientists to reach out to reporters, clearly explain their research, and let journalists know when there are errors in their reporting.

Bringing journalists and scientists together is nothing new for SEJ. We’ve been doing it for years at annual and regional conferences and for reporting tours to help journalists explore the work scientists are doing.

SEJ would like to expand its effort to build better relationships between journalists and scientists, possibly by convening similar discussions in public venues or at scientific meetings. Events could focus on coverage of specific news topics, like climate change or other hot-button environmental issues. SEJ could link these efforts with more of our famous reporting tours or visits to laboratories or field work sites to explore cutting edge research or under-reported news stories.

Many thanks to UCSB faculty and others for hosting the roundtable discussion and the evening event which featured the showing of Frontline and ProPublica’s “The Spill,’’ followed by a lively panel discussion with journalists, including ProPublica’s Abrahm Lustgarten and Los Angeles Times reporter Bettina Boxall, and scientists.

UCSB Environmental Studies Professor Bill Freudenburg, an SEJ member, was to be part of the panel to discuss his recent book, Blowout in the Gulf: The BP Oil Spill Disaster and the Future of Energy in America. Sadly, Bill succumbed to cancer in late December (see story in this issue of SEJournal for a remembrance of Bill and his final words to us!). As part of a moving tribute to Bill, his co-author Robert Gramling, professor of sociology at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette, served on the panel.

Ultimately the SEJ board was gathered in Santa Barbara to tackle its first business meeting of 2011, the budget meeting.

After approving a FY 2011 budget of $918,500, SEJ’s Board of Directors voted Jan 29 to revise the organization’s financial policies to allow limited gifts of unrestricted general support from anyone who supports SEJ’s mission.

The revised policy changes the SEJ board’s longstanding prohibition on accepting gifts or grants of any kind from government sources, environmental interests, non-media companies, or business associations.

Under the new policy, SEJ may now accept unrestricted contributions of general support from any person, group, business or other entity that wants to strengthen the future of SEJ and environmental journalism, up to $15,000, about 1.5 percent of SEJ’s current operating budget, per donor per calendar year.

Total donations from this group of new donors will be capped at 20 percent of SEJ’s budget in any given year. As an organizational goal, SEJ will seek these general support gifts from a range of sources representing diverse points of view.

The decision follows years of discussion among board members and within the SEJ community about how SEJ should adapt to the short- and long-term challenges to its traditional funding model, which is based largely on foundation, media company and university support.

A survey of 186 members conducted last July found SEJ’s membership divided over whether the organization should accept general support from a diverse array of sources.

More than 62 percent of the respondents said such a change would be either “much more’’ or “somewhat more’’ acceptable if SEJ makes clear it is accepting the money with no strings attached and it retains control over its programming. Another 8.2 percent found seeking funds from these new sources “somewhat less acceptable’’ even with the “no strings attached’’ policy. Twenty-six members, 14.2 percent of the respondents, disapproved and 17.6 percent said they would be less likely to remain SEJ members if SEJ accepted direct funding from non-media corporations, government, and environmental groups.

Respondents also provided written comments, some suggesting SEJ cut programs, raise member dues, and sell services rather than accept such contributions.

This was not an easy decision for the SEJ board, but one the board believes is needed to build a financially sustainable organization.

“Times have changed,’’ SEJ Founding President Jim Detjen said prior to the vote. “ ... I do think it’s time to move on doing something like this.’’

The goal is to increase SEJ’s financial independence by diversifying and expanding the organization’s potential sources of funding without sacrificing SEJ’s fundamental principles of independence, integrity and transparency in its fundraising or its strict firewall between funding sources and SEJ operations.

Names and the dollar ranges of all gifts must be disclosed on sej.org at least quarterly and in the SEJournal at least annually. All donations of $5,000 or more must still be reported in their exact amounts on SEJ’s IRS Form 990, which will continue to be posted on sej.org.

SEJ does not accept anonymous donations.

“I think it’s a really good step,’’ SEJ member Paul Rogers of the San Jose Mercury News and KQED’s Quest told me.

Rogers, who served on the board of directors of the Institutes for Journalism and Natural Resources from 2002-2010, recommended SEJ make “every effort to find a diverse group of donors’’ from the environmental community and from corporations, but SEJ must “clearly disclose the donors.”

“When reporters write stories, they interview all sides,’’ Rogers said. “That’s considered a strength in reporting. It’s only natural that SEJ pursues diverse funding. The most important thing to me is that the donations come with no strings attached.’’

Rogers pointed out that neither member dues nor conference fees could fund the “important’’ work SEJ does. With 1,500 members and a $1-million-a-year operating budget, members would have to pay about $666 in annual dues just to maintain the organization’s current programming and operations, Rogers said.

In 2010, SEJ’s nearly $900,000 operating budget was underwritten 45 percent by foundation grants and media company contributions in response to SEJ proposals, 30 percent by earned income (dues, subscriptions, advertising sales, contest entry fees, conference fees and exhibitor fees), 22.5 percent by the University of Montana sponsorship of the annual conference, and 2.5 percent by gifts from individuals.

Bud Ward, a founding SEJ board member, also supported the new policy. “It’s vital for environmental journalism that we stay vibrant and independent,’’ Ward told me. He suggested SEJ consider funding policies like the National Public Radio model.

Like Rogers, Ward stressed the need for complete transparency regarding donor gifts.

“SEJ is the pre-eminent network of educated, well-connected, professional environmental journalists,” Executive Director Beth Parke said.

“People who follow environmental issues appreciate what SEJ does,’’ Parke said. “I’m glad the organization can now welcome and accept no-strings support from anyone who values what we do to strengthen environmental journalism.’’

More information on SEJ’s revised financial policy is here.

Carolyn Whetzel, SEJ board president, covers environmental issues in California for BNA, Inc.

* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Spring 2011 issue.