Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Storytelling Matters: A Look at the Gates Foundation's Media Grantmaking

February 01, 2012

If you listen to public radio in the U.S., chances are you’ve heard the tagline: “Support for NPR comes from … the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.” That “support”—and it’s a perfect word for what we provide—is one of about 30 global media and information grants we currently make at the foundation.

When I tell people I manage the media grant-making portfolio, it’s usually followed by a series of thoughtful, sometimes pointed, questions about our grants in the media space. Answering them will require more than one blog entry, but I’d like to at least start the conversation, with the promise that we’ll continue it in the months ahead.

What exactly is a “media and information grant”?

It’s funding we offer to media and media-supporting organizations to enhance their ability to create, distribute, engage, measure, and facilitate conversation around their content. The funding includes commercial, nonprofit, social, and public media outlets, as well as communications schools, journalism training organizations, and research institutions.

Why does the foundation make media grants? (In other words, what does supporting media have to do with fighting poverty and disease in the developing world, and improving education in the U.S.?)

Ideas, research, personal stories, thoughtful conversation, and fostering engaged communities who want to affect change are all critical to making progress on our issues—fighting poverty and disease in the developing world, and improving education in the United States. Media plays an important role at each and every turn of the process. These grants focus on supporting the media’s ability to inform, engage and, at times, even inspire citizens to participate in some of today’s greatest challenges.

These kinds of stories don’t tend to attract large, mainstream audiences. And with so many media organizations strapped for resources and having to make hard choices, it’s easy to see why these kinds of stories get squeezed. Stories about polio eradication or teacher effectiveness are, as MIT’s Ethan Zuckerman has called them, the “broccoli” of news. They’re important for a healthy media diet but are more expensive and, in the end, often get left behind when there is only so much room on the plate.  

Today’s media environment is complicated and challenging; it also presents enormous opportunities. Our goal is to enable media to take advantage of new technologies that can help them build interest in these important but less popular issues: to engage their audiences in deeper and more robust ways, to help build communities, to facilitate dialogue, and to foster greater participation.

How does the foundation engage with its media grantees?

I know many people are concerned about the influence of outside funding and funders on independent media. It’s a valid concern and one that should be monitored.

Our media investments are grounded in respect for our grantees and their expertise. It wouldn’t do us, or our grantees, any good to jeopardize their credibility. With that in mind, we have set the following guiding principles for our work:

  1. Transparency. We disclose openly our partnership agreements and the sums involved.  (While grants are listed on our website, in the coming weeks I’ll post another blog listing all of our current investments in this portfolio.)
  2. Independence. Our grantees have editorial and creative control and independence.
  3. Integrity. There are no restrictions or requirements on content related to the foundation or its grantees. The content should be honest and accurate, regardless of whether it is positive or negative.

This is, as with everything, a work in progress. I invite you to share thoughts or ask questions about the media and information grants we make in the comment section below. I will answer them as best I can. 

To continue the conversation about journalism, news media, storytelling, and more, join the #storytelling discussion on Twitter.

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