Religious News Service accepts funds to provide more atheist articles

As RNS admits taking money, is there any conflict of interest? Ethical questions? Should an "impartial" news agency provide additional coverage in exchange for much-needed cash?

Religion News Service (RNS), a prominent non-profit news organization focused on faith, is facing some of the same financial constraints that have led to the demise of numerous traditional media outlets. As time goes on and revenue becomes tougher to generate, newsrooms like RNS find themselves looking for ways to bring in much-needed funds. One of the more controversial models that the group has embraced is accepting funds from special interest groups.

In the case of RNS, The Stiefel Freethought Foundation (SFF), a hub for the atheist movement, has given $65,000 over the past two years to help fund coverage of non-believers and the so-called “freethought” movement. The organization, run by atheist millionaire Todd Stiefel (read our extensive profile about him here), has a very clear goal of organizing atheists, while spreading and advancing non-belief.

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An announcement on the SFF web site explains the purpose of an initial $50,000 gift in 2011. Under a section entitled “Accomplishments in 2011,” the site reads, “SFF donated $50,000 to Religion News Service to bolster its coverage of freethinkers with a series of news, investigations, feature stories and photos.”

A separate notation under 2012 accomplishments touts an additional $15,000 given to RNS “to support the second year of its increased coverage of freethinkers.” The SFF made it known that the first year of funding was successful, with RNS purportedly penning 41 stories about the atheist movement.

There are a number of reasons why these gifts may cause controversy and angst, especially on the ethics front. Most mainstream and hard news-driven media outlets adhere to journalistic standards that, on the surface, would make this union suspect. While there are certainly biases to be accounted for, the overall notion is that general news outlets, at least in theory, are supposed to remain non-partisan and unaligned with slanted perspective and special interests.

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Billy Hallowell, editor, The Blaze, a daily news, information and opinion site where you'll find thousands of articles about politics faith, technology, business and more
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