Journalists are being tried in the courts at present for paying to obtain information.
Their publishers and editors argue that it is a reasonable way to gather news.
Their detractors argue that it is an unethical way to carry out investigative journalism.
Britain’s tabloid newspapers often appear to be stuck in a bidding war of sensationalism.
They have transformed news into a tradable commodity, by putting a price tag on new information. What some see as “just another business expense” (Patching & Hirst, 2014) for the media, others suggest is rife with problems. As stated by Patching & Hirst, up-market publications rarely pay for stories, while the so-called tabloid print and broadcast media do it on almost a daily basis.
The industry has coined the term ‘chequebook journalism’ to define the ethically dubious practice of journalists who pay sources for information. The reasons behind the custom are murky and full of complex issues. While the ‘buyers’ maintain that chequebook journalism is just another business expense aimed at lifting ratings or circulation, and improving the media organisation’s bottom line – I am convinced that the habit is so corrosive to journalistic integrity, that it is detrimental to the ethics of journalism.
Chequebook journalism according to Sanders (2003) is potentially corrupting as it “encourages the embellishment of information.” Paying a source to obtain information or an interview immediately puts the credibility of the material they provide in doubt. How do you know they are not exaggerating or fabricating their story? Will a paid source tell you the truth, or tell you what you want to hear? Paid sources may have an incentive not to tell the truth, thus stifling the free flow of information. Journalist Benjamin Parker told me the issue is a “slippery slope,” and that “you have to be careful you are not paying for what you want them to tell you.”
In particular, the principal problem raised by paying witnesses is the danger that witnesses promised or hoping for payment may “distort evidence to make their stories more newsworthy, or omit to give part of their evidence in court to ensure that an exclusive angle remains marketable” (Epworth & Hannah, 1998). It is for reasons such as these that the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) bans payments to witnesses in court cases until the case is concluded. Likewise, the BBC also advises against it and does not allow witnesses to be paid before a trial, unless, there is overwhelming public interest, or because the interviewee is an expert witness whose professional opinion is being sought.
The threat that sources may encourage a frenzied, media bidding war by having learnt that their information is marketable and will withhold it until they can make a profit from it – does not seem to discourage New York Times journalist, John Tierney. While payments might promote fictional tales and call into question the veracity of the claims, Tierney argues they “elicit stories that would otherwise not be told from the many people who now see no good reason to talk to a reporter” (Tierney, 1993). When writing a series of stories about homeless people in New York, Tierney said many of them asked for payment in exchange for being interviewed. He reasoned with them that instead of payment, he could buy them a meal during the interview, claiming it seemed “ethically superior” to buy a homeless man a $30 dinner, than was to give him $10 cash in hand.
Nevertheless, Tierney contends some interviews would be easier if there was a cash transaction between source and reporter because it would clarify the relationship. Sources would then understand that he was neither a friend nor an advocate. They would know it was a reporter who had paid them for information for their stories. I acknowledge that exchanging money when you’re looking for information from a source changes the nature of the relationship between the reporter and the source.
However, unlike Tierney, I would argue that the relationship could become ambiguous; it’s easy for the `consultant’ to become a paid informant. By paying a source, you now have a business relationship with someone you’re trying to cover objectively, creating a conflict of interest in the process. It once again calls into question whether they’re talking to the journalist because it’s the right thing to do, or because they’re getting paid.
Ex-Editor of The Observer, Donald Trelford succinctly says: “People who posses information are entitled to sell it”(Trelford, 1983). He does not believe paying sources is unethical, as long as the reader or viewer has been informed. Full disclosure is important, if there is a conflict of interest, then what should come next is explaining it in detail, letting viewers know you had a separate relationship other than just that of a journalist and a source.
However, regardless of informing the reader of the transaction, paying sources can also lead to problems with how the public observes the news. Media ethics expert, Chris Frost says past cases have shown that if the public perceives that the information is tainted by financial motives, “they will discount the value of the information” (Frost, 2007). Interviews that come as the result of financial motives may lead to readers thinking the information is corrupt, hence them likely to find the news to be less credible. Journalists must therefore balance the need for the story against the possible loss of public trust.
Michael Wines is another journalist who is strongly against the habit: “In reputable journalism, paying for information is a cardinal sin, the notion being that a source who will talk only for money is to say anything to earn his payment”(Wines, 2006), thus leading to sensationalised stories and private material becoming news. The case of Princess Diana’s butler Paul Burrell revealed how money could buyout a lucrative story on the royals for British tabloids. Likewise, another example of chequebook journalism was the affair of sports personality David Beckham in 2004. His then personal assistant, Rebecca Loos was allegedly paid nearly £2 million by the News of the World for details of her affair with the footballer.
Trelford on the other hand argues that on occasions when paying a source seems the only way to secure important information, the practice is not unethical. It can be difficult to argue that papers and broadcasters that abstain from paying informants are morally or professionally superior to those that do, when the latter are seizing important stories, which may otherwise go untold. After all, Lorna Veraldi has said that “Newsgathering is a business” (Heyboer, 1999), and with the explosion of news on the Internet and interactive devices, increased competition has led money to become a tool of the trade for many journalists fighting vigorously for stories.
However, freelance journalist, Lix Hewett told me “competition doesn’t give you license to cross ethical boundaries.” I agree, that surely paying for news tends to cast doubts on not just the sincerity of the source, but also the ethics and credibility of the journalist. I concur with Patching & Hirst (2014) on their belief that bought stories are often, “not as well researched and tested as those that results from investigative journalism or the everyday work of seasoned journalists.” A story that has to be bought isn’t worth the price if it means damaging your reputation as a journalist who uses payment as an easy and lazy way of going about getting a good story.
In conclusion, creative, thoughtful journalists “will always find a way to get it without paying for it” (Heyboer, 1999). Chequebook journalism compromises honest and ethical reporting. How do we know what is being given is ‘exclusively’ bona fide? As I’ve discussed, once a person is being paid for their story, they may feel an obligation to ‘perform’ to earn their fee. The source could exaggerate the value of whatever they may have ‘for sale’ and even invent the information itself. I therefore believe that ethical investigative journalists should reject this insidious practice of paying sources to obtain information.