There's an interesting piece on Slate regarding Hormel Foods Corp. and its business practices, including its treatment of animals -- not exactly a mainstream news story, but more like a can of Spam, full of interesting and tasty tidbits held together by...what, I'm not sure.
Then you get the tagline and logo at the end of the story:
"Slate's coverage of food systems is made possible in part by W.K. Kellogg Foundation."
So the story you've just read, when you get to the end, is paid for by a foundation that obviously has an agenda of some kind. Foundations don't just give money to anyone -- they give it to promote an agenda. In this case, the foundation's mission is to "support vulnerable children in the areas of educated kids, healthy kids, secure families, racial equity and civic engagement."
The Kellogg is, as you may have guessed, the Kellogg company of snap, crackle, pop fame.
Slate and other magazine-like websites have their own way of operating. Print magazines have different rules for news ethics from newspapers, as do TV news operations, though I'm not sure most readers or viewers are aware of all the different rulebooks.
Newspapers have been "made possible in part" by advertising from the beginning, but that's just part of the mix, and we don't run news stories that are explicitly linked to an advertiser or donor. That goes to the heart of our credibility. We report the news as we find it, straight up, impartially, without any favoritism or bias, and we do everything we can to avoid any perception our news is affected by advertisers, our own business interests, political pressure or any other outside pressure.
Having to run a tagline that says, "We couldn't afford to have a reporter cover the 'food systems' beat, so we accept money or content from a foundation that clearly has an agenda regarding this issue," is not the way we intend to go.
Some health care foundations are now underwriting stories that are provided free to media. We used one a while back from the Kaiser Family Foundation, with the appropriate tagline, but we won't repeat that. There's no need for it. There's plenty of good health-related content available from our own reporters, freelance reporters we hire (and can vouch for), and wire services.
We do run occasional feature stories on local military personnel that are provided by the U.S. military, with a byline and a tagline to explain how we got the stories. You might argue that's the same type of "sponsored" coverage, but we regard them as news releases, basically, that we run with absolutely crystal clear attribution.
The trend toward "underwritten" or "sponsored" news content on public radio, network news, local TV, web and elsewhere can only erode the most precious things news organizations have: credibility, integrity and authenticity.