Should Journalists Pay for Information?
A tricky one, this, and easy to get on one’s high horse but not analyse one’s own self interest.
As professional skeptics, though, we should be suspicious of the knee-jerk way in which journalists invoke the “no money for information” rule. How convenient that our personal gain and our profession’s ethical principles are so perfectly aligned! Isn’t it possible that this prohibition is simultaneously true and a way of banishing awkward questions of money and exchange from our moral calculations? In the murky intimacy that comes with immersion reporting, we owe our sources everything. Perhaps this is why we try so hard to avoid the topic.
I quite agree. In Asia it’s hard to draw a line somewhere, and I’ve covered sleazy politicians and (even sleazier) tech PR companies, all of whom expect to get something for something. One former minister in the Habibie government insisted on money for an interview after he’d retired, arguing that it taught journalists the value of information (I argued it only taught them the price of it) and another, a senior politician and minister who is now a presidential candidate, demanded 9 million rupiah (then a little under $1000) for an interview. (We didn’t pay.)
But it’s easy to get all pompous about this. As Boynton points out, it’s sometimes easier to teach the ethics of journalism (the theory) than to teach good journalism (the practice).
And, more important, I think journalism is under far more serious threat from the other side: journalists accepting payment or making financial compromises in exchange for print space. More on that anon.
In the meantime, this all came up because I was asked to explain the ethics behind refusing to pay for information and found I couldn’t, at least in a way that made any sense. The example arose with a school run by nuns reportedly demanding money for access to records of a former pupil, now famous. They were tired, I guess, of the time and effort of catering to sweaty film crews stomping through their office.
They have my sympathies, and if one crew agrees to pay, a precedent has been set in the nuns’ eyes that is hard to quarrel with. They’re not out to make a buck; they’re just tired of diverting resources to something that they’re not being hired (or asked by God, presumably) to do.
Good luck to them. But they need to see it from the perspective of the journalist, too. Paying a nun for information isn’t likely to compromise the information very much, but how about if the person was a pimp/drug dealer/thief/killer/banker? How tainted is the information—and the relationship between the journalist and her source—then?
I guess my advice in that situation would be for a journalist or news organisation worried about such perceptions to offer money to a charity of the source’s choosing but from which they would not benefit directly; the purpose of giving the money is to acknowledge the time and effort that went into providing the information, but not actually attaching a value to the information itself. It’s also acknowledging the more important principle: that, however much we’d like to think otherwise, information is money in our business—indeed that is our business, turning information into money–and we shouldn’t be too prissy about acknowledging that fact.