Guidelines for On-Air Charitable Solicitations
Journalists should be good citizens, and sometimes that means they are torn between their journalistic duty and their desire to help others by raising money or making other charitable donations. After the September 11, 2001, attacks on America, journalists asked the public to give money, donate blood and help pay for scholarships for children whose parents died. All are worthy causes. But how much work did journalists do to be certain the money was spent wisely? How much follow-up were journalists willing to do to be certain the money was spent as fundraisers promised? Americans learned soon after the September 11th attacks that the Red Cross held millions of dollars in donations in a general disaster fund, not a specific September 11th fund as many donors believed it would be.
The networks held a simulcast telethon that raised millions more, but even at the time of the telecast there was no clear plan for how the money would be spent. These same issues arise routinely in local news. A fire destorys a family home, a flood washes away homes or tornadoes hit a poor rural area. Journalists want to help. Often the cause is worthy and the public generously responds. Some newsrooms wanting to position themselves as "the station that cares" look for causes they can support and urge their public to support them, too.
When journalists lend their names, reputations and that of their newsrooms to a charitable cause, they take on a special obligation to investigate and disclose details of the charity. When your station urges your audience to help a cause or individuals, your station is offering an official stamp of approval to that cause. There is an implied contract with your community that you have investigated the cause and found it worthy and sound.
Before urging viewers/listeners to contribute to a charitable cause, journalists should consider:
- What do you know and what do you need to know about the individual(s) or group who would benefit from your support? What do you know about their financial standing, their ability to be good stewards of finances, the individuals' or group's past, what assets or liabilities the recipient has? Have you checked state and municipal charitable solicitation records to see if this charity has been in compliance with local laws? Has it filed an I-990, which is required of any charity other than religious organizations that take in more than $25,000 per year? You can check those records at http://www.guidestar.com.
- Why is this charity or individual worthy of the station's and your audience's support? How sure are you that the individual's or group's charitable needs are not being met? How hard has the group or individual tried to secure help from other sources?
- Who else is supporting this work? Why is this support not enough? What would happen if you did nothing?
- How has this individual or group managed money and supplies in the past? In the case of a charitable group or organization, what percentage of income has gone to programs versus overhead and administrative costs in the past?
- How willing is your newsroom to follow up this story, to see how much was donated and where the money went? How willing are you to expose misuse of contributions if you discover them?
- Who will oversee the contributions the public makes to the individual or group in need? Could you insist that a bank or financial administrator oversee both the contributions and expenditures and provide a full accounting of both to the public?
- If you did not ask the public to help, would the public be asking you to help them connect with the subject? In other words, are you starting a campaign or are you filling an information void?
Created by Al Tompkins, The Poynter Institute for RTDNF's Journalism Ethic Project