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Business Costs & Regulation

Should News Organizations Pay Their Sources?

Checkbook journalism is on the rise among mainstream broadcast networks and Internet media sites. It is a disturbing trend.

Q: I occasionally read that a major TV news network has paid people involved in a dramatic news story large fees for exclusive interviews, amateur videos and participation in subsequent TV specials. I’ve also heard that some sports teams grant media com­panies that pay seven-digit "partnership" fees special access (to press conferences, coaches and players), and restrict the access of those that don’t. What do you think about the ethics of these arrangements?

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A: Not much. This kind of "checkbook journalism"—long common in Great Britain and among sensational tabloid papers in the U.S.—is on the rise among mainstream broadcast networks and Internet media sites. It is a disturbing trend.

I agree with the ethics committee of the Society of Professional Journalists, whose position paper says that "checkbook journalism is not only unethical, it threatens to undermine journalism and damage democracy." Readers and viewers, the committee warns, are left "wondering whether the [paid] source is telling the truth, telling the [news outlet] what it wants to hear, or embellishing the truth."

It continues: "Paying for information creates a conflict of interest [in the news organization]. Asking tough questions, examining the motives, weighing the credibility of a source—all of these journalistic functions become intricately more complicated when the source is someone receiving money for a story."

If the business managers of news media feel compelled to pay their citizen news sources, the financial relationship should be disclosed at the start of the story. So far, editorial employees, perhaps fearing for their jobs in this precarious media climate, have not insisted on this.

Similarly, sports reporters should stand up for the rights of peers who are locked out of legitimate news stories because their employers haven't paid for preferential treatment. Regrettably, that hasn't happened yet, either.

Have a money-and-ethics question you’d like answered in this column? Write to editor in chief Knight Kiplinger at ethics@kiplinger.com.

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