Misguided Benevolence: How ‘moments Of Need’ Came To Motivate American Journalism

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Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
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Foreign Reporting
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Media ethnography
International Relations
Journalism Studies
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This dissertation is about the role of nonprofit funding in U.S. journalism, one of the most popular solutions to the tricky reality that many Americans want a model of news that is free of government and commercial control, but seem unwilling to pay for it. From deciding what stories get covered, to where they are reported, to how they are framed, to how audiences are prompted to interact with them, nonprofits have quietly slid into this moment of news industry precarity to impart considerable influence over how the news is made. And few people seem to have noticed. One reason for this is that we don’t yet have a common language or framework for understanding what nonprofit influence is actually having on the news - what’s new and what’s not, who it is intended to benefit and who is left out, and why any of it really matters at all. In response to each of these gaps, this study draws on archival research related to one of the first major efforts of nonprofit-journalism collaboration, a four-month ethnography as a grant-funded journalist in a newsroom, and more than 100 in-depth interviews with journalists who reported a global news story on nonprofit strings. In the end, this dissertation challenges several preconceptions of nonprofit-involvement in newsmaking and offers a triad of preconditions -- precedent, structure, and tone -- to explain nonprofit influence in journalism today. I argue that nonprofit-journalism newsmaking is especially geared to produce ‘moment of need’ images and narratives in response to stories of crisis, as a means to at once raise and strategically answer questions of solidarity and intervention for news audiences. I ultimately find that this strategic method of storytelling is not oriented to benefit the individuals whose stories are routinely told, but to legitimize the nonprofit and news institutions that produce them and to give agency to the news audiences that consume them. In doing so, this dissertation gives expression to the unintended consequences of well-intentioned journalists, and aims to start a spirited discussion on why everyone should should care about the direction of nonprofits in journalism today.

Barbie Zelizer
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