Why not pay sources?

Week of Jan. 11, 2010

The story about the successful fight of a U.S. father to regain custody of his nine-year-old son in Brazil became a media story late last month after NBC News flew the two of them home and got exclusive interviews for its troubles. The Society of Professional Journalists, along with other independent commentators, slammed NBC for practicing “checkbook journalism”—compensating sources with cash or goodies—which is considered corrupt by mainstream U.S. media.

I was cheered by the clarity and initiative of the SPJ ethics people. Too often newsroom conduct is judged solely by the people who own and run the newsrooms, and seeing SPJ, the country’s premier journalist organization, speak up for rank and file professionalism was inspiring and commendable.

But were they right? What exactly was wrong with NBC giving David and Sean Goldman a ride on the plane it chartered for its own people? Suppose in return NBC did get exclusive interviews. So what?

Indeed, why not compensate sources?

For journalists, to be sure, paying sources would be a major headache. Reporting is hard enough and expensive enough without preceding every interview with a sales negotiation.

For the public? There, the possible impact is less clear. It’s true that as citizens, we benefit from having reporters on the job with the enterprise and the stamina to bird-dog people and cajole them into talking about things we want to know about. If reporters’ work became even tougher and costlier, the flow of publicly significant information might suffer.

Maybe. Or maybe payments would induce disclosures from people who now see no reason to come forward.

It’s also argued that payments would corrupt the information. Sources would naturally want to please their paymasters and would shape their tales accordingly. Journalists, having bought and paid for the information, would feel tender and proprietary, not tough and adversarial, toward the new asset. Instead of lubricating the system, payouts would gum up the works.

Again, maybe. Or maybe the source would be keen to deliver truthful information if money was at stake. And the reporter, having paid up, would be secure in asking the provocative questions she might hold back if the source felt free to rip off the microphone and stalk off the set.

My point is that the criticism of payments as harmful to the public—because they would yield less and worse information—is based on questionable notions of how people would actually behave. Indeed, supermarket tabloids such as the National Enquirer, which reputedly relies on paid sources, have been pretty accurate in recent years unearthing celebrity scandals.

So much for the ambiguous impact of payments on journalists and the public. What about on the sources themselves?

Here, I think we have a fairness problem: Certain people are already richly compensated for being sources. Some even get paychecks, such as the new caste of on-air “news consultants.” But for many, many other members of the political, managerial and professional elite whose words and deeds constitute the overwhelming bulk of what we call news, getting called and quoted and covered is a boon to their working lives and a material factor in their career success.

They are rewarded, big time, thanks to the media’s power to confer prestige, standing and importance upon them, and thanks to their own power to convert those intangible payments—since that’s what they are—into hard currency.

When people condemn the evils of paying sources, they’re really only talking about a certain class of sources—not the professional sources who routinely cash in, but the ordinary Joe who has stumbled into a moment of celebrity and is suddenly standing on a chilly stage with a klieg light in his face, blinking in disbelief. Without any idea what this exposure might do or how badly he might humiliate himself, he’s implored to submit to questions and scrutiny from glamorous strangers, who make unfathomable salaries for doing just that.

Indeed, every single entity at every single level of the media food chain will make money from his cooperation—but not him, not the source, the most vulnerable and the most indispensable player, because the people who will profit from him have determined that paying him would be wrong.

We’ve come to believe that media exposure of most any kind is a fast track to stardom, but for most civilians being a source is a dubious proposition: high risk, low reward, possible harms far outweighing likely benefits.

I’m not sure payments would matter or how they’d work. But sources are the least valued participants in the news, and in contemporary America nothing attests to value as eloquently as a price tag.


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2 Responses

  1. https://blog.cleveland.com/metro/2010/01/lebrons_latest_shoe_has.html

    Mr. Wasserman:

    I ran across this article today on the front page of The Plain Dealer. I found it a curious story, one of odd news value in my opinion. The story made me wonder aloud how senior editors at a major metro could make such a decision. Has the front page of dailies given way to infomercials?

    Maybe I’m missing something — I’ll concede as much. I haven’t worked at a daily newspaper for about 10 years, so my perspective might have been skewed now that I’ve been in the dot.com world. Still, I’d like to think that the front page is sacred territory, and to use it for blatant commercialism speaks to why the daily newspaper looks like an endangered species.

    Should readers be concerned about this sort of new judgment, Mr. Wasserman? I know you blog about ethical issues, so I figured this might be one you’d like to address for the journalism community.

    Justice B. Hill
    Justice B. Hill|Freelance writer/editor
    e: jbernardh@aol.com | h: 216.229-1911|c: 216.659-5490|aim: jbernardh
    a: 1972 East 82nd Street, Cleveland, Ohio 44103

    1. Mr. Hill,
      Thanks for the note, and apologies for taking so long to respond. I don’t know why the Plain-Dealer played my column on the front. It is, as you correctly say, an unusual choice, and the publications that pick up my column generally put it on their opinion pages. I must say, however, that to describe the column as an “infomercial” and as an instance of “blatant commercialism” is wholly inaccurate. An “infomercial” is a paid ad tricked out to look like an editorial offering.
      Ed Wasserman

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