The grant-funded project that St. Louis Public Radio recently announced is ambitious.
It’s big — more than $170,000 from the Missouri Foundation for Health for our news organization and the University of Missouri-St. Louis. And it addresses a big question — how to reach people whose voices and views are often left out of public policy discussions that directly affect them.
The discussion we're focusing on has to do with the health and welfare of various groups in our region. Your odds for a long, healthy life vary greatly depending on your race, income, education level, neighborhood and other factors. Poor African Americans get the short end of the stick, but may not be aware of, or included in, discussions of what to do about these disparities.
Middle-class whites have better statistical odds. Yet they, too, are affected by disparities as diminished prospects for some groups hobble the prospects of the region as a whole. And they, too, may not be likely to take part in discussion of what to do.
Over the last year, a consortium of researchers from several universities investigated the region's disparities in a series of reports called For The Sake Of All. The reports enumerate ways the region as a whole suffers, counting the toll in lost earnings, lost workforce competitiveness, health problems, crime and so on.
In the wrap-up to the project, the researchers recommended certain public policy changes to even the playing field. But do the findings and the recommendations make sense? We can't know unless we hear from those who are directly affected and from those who are affected but may not realize it.
St. Louis Public Radio takes no editorial position on the recommendations or any other public policy matter. But we report on news that matters — including this issue — so that you can decide what to do. Our reporting and your understanding will be stronger if we can reach deeper into the community to learn from and inform those who are affected.
Using For The Sake Of All as our focus, our grant-funded project will reach out to four neighborhoods — in north and south St. Louis and St. Louis County. Residents in both areas have much to contribute to and much to learn from discussion of how to solve health and welfare disparities in the region. Yet they're unlikely to be part of the discussion already. We’ll try to figure out how they currently get news and information and how we might more effectively connect with them on this topic.
UMSL faculty and students will help with the effort, as will high school students who live in the areas. We hope to produce a sort of map of how news travels — a map we can use to reach people we're not already reaching. We may find that churches and schools are important sources of news and information. We may find that personal friends and texting are key. Whatever we find, we'll use to broaden and deepen our work on this topic and others.
Perhaps I should not have been surprised that the announcement of this grant prompted some suspicion that the Missouri Foundation For Health would exert influence on news coverage. Yet the integrity of our work is so profoundly important that I reflexively bristle when someone questions it. Let me address the skeptics and explain the principles and practices we follow to ensure that integrity.
Of course, we need and welcome financial support in many forms — donations, grants, underwriting, income from events and elsewhere. Funding helps us serve you well — to analyze, investigate and innovate in ways that would not happen otherwise. We take pains to ensure that funding does not compromise public trust.
First, we insist on independence. As a fundamental ethical principle, we make news coverage decisions without regard to funding or other outside influence. We never promise specific coverage in exchange for funding. Nor do we carry the kind of sponsored content you see elsewhere — created by or specifically for an advertiser but intermingled with news content and not necessarily labeled as an ad. We make these principles clear to donors and underwriters.
Second, we practice transparency. We don't just ask you to trust us. We list major sources of support in our annual report and disclose relationships in stories if the sources are a major focus.
Third, we maintain diversity in funding. Revenue comes from several streams — small donors, large donors, foundations, businesses, government funding of public media and more. That makes us less dependent on any single stream or source.
Fortunately, St. Louis Public Radio has more than 20,000 members — mostly small donors whose support is our most important guarantee of independence and sustainability. Large donors and grants come from people across the political spectrum and with a wide variety of interests. That, too, provides reassurance that we're not the captive of some special interest.
How can you tell whether to trust a news organization? Traditionally, journalists protected their integrity by erecting a wall between the newsroom and the business side. In truth, that wall could be easily breached unless people on both sides were committed to upholding it. As the old business model has broken down, new ones have emerged, requiring new practices to maintain the old ethical principles. Transparency, diversity and a commitment to independence are among the most important.
At St. Louis Public Radio, public trust remains our most important asset. Our principles embrace it. And our practices ensure it.