Sydney Cromwell, 21, senior, Samford University (Birmingham, Ala.)
Cromwell is a senior journalism and mass communication major with a concentration in print journalism. She is the incoming editor-in-chief of the weekly student-run newspaper, the Samford Crimson, and will begin working with the journalism department’s newspaper, Exodus, in the fall. Cromwell is also a staff writer at Starnes Publishing, which produces five community newspapers in the Birmingham metro area, and is a member of Kappa Tau Alpha journalism honor society.
As a general rule, journalists rightly look down on paying sources for information. It cheapens a journalist’s work and can call a story’s veracity into question. Plus, paying sources for information leaves news organizations open to being taken for a ride. With a monetary incentive, plenty of people will produce photos and stories that may be biased or falsified. This means extra time spent fact checking and researching to avoid publishing—and paying for—untrue information.
However, there are occasions when a source wants to be paid for a story that is truly significant to a news outlet’s audience: government corruption, dangerous medical practices and information that could have significant adverse effects on readers’ quality of life. Paying for the details does not fit the code of journalism ethics, but failing to report the story is also a disservice to readers.
In these cases, I think the best approach is to treat a paid source much like an anonymous source and exhaust every other option first. Try to convince the source to provide information for free. Find alternative sources that do not require a paycheck. And, of course, do your own research to verify the information and the source’s reliability.
If there are no other alternatives, then a reporter and his or her editors should consider paying the source. If they decide to go that route, the news outlet should be open about the payment in its reporting. I would prefer that an article always comes from a journalist’s hard work rather than a paycheck, but a story of the right magnitude, such as Toronto mayor Rob Ford’s crack cocaine use, deserves to be told. In some situations, paying to publish a critical story is ethically better than keeping it from the public because you refuse to pay.
Mike Leary, 65, editor, San Antonio Express-News
Leary has served as editor of the San Antonio Express-News since August 2012. While investigations editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer, he directed and edited a series that was awarded the 2012 Pulitzer Prize gold medal for public service reporting.
There’s nothing unusual about reporters dealing with unsavory sources to nail down news stories. And there’s similarly nothing unusual about paying a freelancer for a newsy photo. Mashing up the two practices, though, can lead to credibility problems and ethical dilemmas. A case in point: The Mayor Rob Ford crack-pipe photos, acquired by the Toronto Globe and Mail from an admitted drug dealer for $10,000.
I would have run the story, but not paid for the pictures. The payment actually undercut the veracity of the story—in the same way a witness in a criminal case may be undermined if he’s struck a deal for leniency or is a paid informant. In this case, did the drug dealer manufacture a crime in hopes of a payday? He admitted to the Globe that he had that scenario in mind.
Moreover, running the photos didn’t prove that there was crack in the pipe. Solid prior reporting had already established that Ford was prone to substance abuse, and the Globe’s latest reporting had documented that he was backsliding.
The Globe sought to cloak itself in a public service mantle, and employed a sort of situational ethics to justify its payment that would be, well, amusing, if the situation weren’t so serious. The editor noted that “Toronto is the financial capital of this G8 country and the sixth-biggest government in Canada. Paralysis in Toronto is bad for the country. The mayor is supposed to be the guardian of his city. The photographs we published are a price worth paying.” It’s not really the price but the principle.
Journalists need to guard their credibility, their independence and their reputation as truth tellers. Checkbook journalism besmirches that reputation. What the Globe did was allow a drug dealer to act as editor by establishing a marketplace where news can be revealed or suppressed, depending on the price and the motive.