Here's How and Why Reporters Should Avoid Checkbook Journalism

Paying Sources for Information Creates Problems - Ethical and Otherwise

Doctor and businessman exchanging money
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Checkbook journalism is when reporters or news organizations pay sources for information, and for a variety of reasons most news outlets frown on such practices or ban them outright.

The Society of Professional Journalists, a group that promotes ethical standards in journalism, says checkbook journalism is wrong and shouldn't be used - ever.

Andy Schotz, chairman of the SPJ's ethics committee, says paying a source for information or an interview immediately puts the credibility of the information they provide in doubt.

"Exchanging money when you're looking for information from a source changes the nature of the relationship between the reporter and the source," Schotz says. "It calls into question whether they're talking to you because it's the right thing to do or because they're getting money."

Schotz says reporters thinking about paying sources for information should ask themselves: Will a paid source tell you the truth, or tell you what you want to hear?

Paying sources creates other problems. "By paying a source you now have a business relationship with someone you're trying to cover objectively," Schotz says. "You've created a conflict of interest in the process."

Schotz says most news organizations have policies against checkbook journalism. "But lately there seems to be a trend to try to make a distinction between paying for an interview and paying for something else."

This seems to be especially true for TV news divisions, a number of which have paid for exclusive interviews or photographs (see below).

Full Disclosure is Important

Schotz says if a news outlet does pay a source, they should disclose that to their readers or viewers.

"If there's 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," Schotz says.

Schotz admits that news organizations not wanting to be scooped on a story might resort to checkbook journalism, but he adds: "Competition doesn't give you license to cross ethical boundaries."

Schotz' advice for aspiring journalists? "Don't pay for interviews. Don't give sources gifts of any kind. Don't try to exchange something of value in return for getting a source's comments or information or access to them. Journalists and sources shouldn't have any other relationship other than the one involved in gathering news."

Here are some examples of checkbook journalism, according to the SPJ:

  • ABC News paid $200,000 to Casey Anthony, the Florida woman accused of killing her 2-year-old daughter, Caylee, for exclusive rights to videos and pictures that ran on the network and its website. Earlier ABC had paid for Caylee Anthony's grandparents to stay three nights at a hotel as part of the network's plan to interview them.
  • CBS News reportedly agreed to pay Caylee Anthony's grandparents $20,000 as a licensing fee to participate in the network's news coverage.
  • ABC paid for Pennsylvania resident Anthony Rakoczy to pick up his daughter in Florida after a fake kidnapping attempt and for return plane tickets for Rakoczy and his daughter. ABC covered the trip and disclosed the free air travel.
  • NBC News provided a chartered jet for New Jersey resident David Goldman and his son to fly home from Brazil after a custody battle. NBC got an exclusive interview with Goldman and video footage during that private jet ride.
  • CNN paid $10,000 for the rights to an image taken by Jasper Schuringa, the Dutch citizen who overpowered an alleged Christmas Day bomber on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit. CNN also got an exclusive interview with Schuringa.