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Checkbook Journalism, David Goldman And The Brazilian 'Rescue' — Should Sources Be Paid?

In business, Media on December 29, 2009 at 9:19 am
Society of Professional Journalists

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Here’s a wrist-slap from the Society of Professional Journalists:

The Society of Professional Journalists’ Ethics Committee is appalled NBC News breached widely accepted ethical journalism guidelines by providing the plane that carried David Goldman and his son Sean back to the United States from Brazil after a high-profile custody battle.

NBC conducted an exclusive interview with David Goldman during the flight it financed and another exclusive interview once the Goldmans returned to the United States.

Journalists know this practice as “checkbook journalism.”

The SPJ Code of Ethics urges journalists to act independently by avoiding bidding for news and by avoiding conflicts of interest.

By making itself part of a breaking news story on which it was reporting — apparently to cash in on the exclusivity assured by its expensive gesture — NBC jeopardized its journalistic independence and credibility in its initial and subsequent reports. In effect, the network branded the story as its own, creating a corporate and promotional interest in the way the story unfolds. NBC’s ability to report the story fairly has been compromised by its financial involvement.

“The public could rightly assume that NBC News bought exclusive interviews and images, as well as the family’s loyalty, with an extravagant gift,” Ethics Committee Chairman Andy Schotz said.

The news media’s duty is to report news, not help create it. The race to be first should not involve buying — directly or indirectly — interviews, an unseemly practice that raises questions of neutrality, integrity and credibility.

“Mixing financial and promotional motives with an impartial search for truth stains honest, ethical reporting,” Schotz said. “Checkbook journalism has no place in the news business.”

Selling your story to the highest bidder is standard practice in Britain. Journalists  — who, if they are not handsomely rewarded personally, help their parent organizations reap viewers/readers and ad revenue by snagging and riding the hottest stories — routinely refuse to pay sources. That’s just how it’s done in the U.S. and in Canada, even if the person being interviewed is destitute.

It does create an unwinnable “arms race” when a large media organization with very deep pockets can, literally, spirit away the key figure in a breaking international story. But, as we all know, life’s not fair and the media business remains ever more competitive.

What do you think?

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