Paid for coverage? No! How journalism happens



By Caitlin Kelly

It’s becoming sillier and sadder by the day.

Having a U.S. President who shrieks “Fake news!” isn’t helping, that’s for sure.

This recent poll makes clear what a mess we’re in when it comes to mistrust, misunderstanding and hostility toward journalists.


Sixty percent think that we are paid by our sources all the time or often.




I would laugh at this stupidity, but find this level of ignorance stunning and deeply depressing.

A friend who works in digital media — which I admit I read very little of — says it’s because there’s such an overlap of commercial messaging and editorial and the lines aren’t clear to readers and publishers don’t make it clear enough.

Let’s get this straight — and, I beg each one of you, tweet this blog post. Email it. Share it with everyone you know, at any age.

We are not paid by our sources!

If a journalist is discovered to be doing this, they’re a cheat and a fraud and will get fired and shamed and shunned by anyone who still understands what we are supposed to be doing.

When I write about X company or Y product or Z person, I do so because they’re deemed sufficiently interesting by the editor who agreed to pay me to write about them, not because the damn company or person paid me to perform a public relations function.

Web writing pay rates are a sick joke, so an “argument” gets made that writers don’t make enough money which leaves them open to suborning.

Not the ethical ones!

There has been some serious malfeasance, and here’s a powerful piece by Jon Christian from 2018 exposing it:


Welcome to the dubious new world of payola journalism, where publicists like Prokopi have carved out a niche arranging undisclosed payments to financially strapped reporters and bloggers in exchange for friendly media coverage of clients. If you want to understand the vulnerable state of the news industry, don’t just consider the thinning newsrooms of national publications — look at the writers who are being paid to plug brands on sites like Forbes and the Huffington Post.


Yet this week I got a phone call, at home in New York, from some stranger who said — no joke — I want you to place a story for me in The New York Times; I’ve been freelancing for the Times for decades.

I lost my shit.

“Do you have any idea how journalism works?!” I asked him. “What makes you think this is even possible? I don’t work there. I’m not the publisher nor an editor.”

Cowed, he said: “I do now.”

A Twitter pal sent me this terrific blog post she wrote; if you want to seriously understand what we do and why, it’s a great read.

Here’s a bit of it:

The last story I wrote for S&P Global Market Intelligence was about the suicide crisis in the northern Ontario town of Attawapiskat, and whether an unfair deal with a diamond miner may have contributed to this outbreak.

I chose to do the story because the Attawapiskat suicide crisis was major news, with every news outlet covering it. Missing from almost all that coverage? The role of a diamond mining company operating near the town, and whether that company had reneged on its agreements to provide jobs, opportunities and development for indigenous residents of the isolated town.

Before I spoke to anyone, I first had to dig in and do reams of research. I investigated what the indigenous population had said in the past about their dealings with the mining firm, as well as any documents the firm made available on the nature of its agreement with the local community. I looked into what mining associations and Aboriginal groups said about the town and the mining industry,  and read many reports from Canadian think tanks about Aboriginal-resource company relations and how it had changed over the last 20 years.
Armed with that information, I then hit the phones.

I called everyone – the mining company, the local governance association, a Canada-wide group representing Aboriginals in their dealings with the natural resource industry, firms which advised Aboriginal groups on how to negotiate effectively with resource firms, and law firms specialising in representing Aboriginal claims to resource companies (and the diamond mining company, which wasn’t talking). Each interview took a few hours to set up, involved at least 1 hour on the phone. Following this, after each interview, I double-checked my notes, doing what I could to ensure I transcribed the quote correctly, and followed up with the source if my notes were unclear at any point.

So now that I’d done research and interviews, you’d think I would be done. But I wasn’t.


Want to better understand anything about journalism?


Please ask! I’ve been doing it for decades.


11 thoughts on “Paid for coverage? No! How journalism happens

  1. I think it’s great that you’ve offered to share your insider knowledge of how the industry works. As a freelance writer/copywriter/PR communicator who has also occasionally also placed pieces with news publications, I’ve faced considerable skepticism (and rightly so) from the editors. (“Who are you working for?” “Well, no one actually. Just thought it was a good story, worthy of coverage.” It can be a tough sell, indeed.) Now that the online world of ‘content creation’ has all kinds of people writing on all kinds of topics, I can see how readers become confused over who is working for whom, who is legitimate and who is getting paid to sing the praises of various brands. As a blogger who posts weekly just for the love of it, I find it particularly irritating when fellow bloggers post rather obviously ‘sponsored’ content without being transparent. The whole thing is a mess, and the irony is that in this era of fake news, we need good journalism now more than ever.

    1. Well, let’s see if anyone is interested! The post isn’t getting many views.

      I agree that it’s confusing to anyone outside the industry to understand its financing — it used to be pretty clear with newspapers (classified and display ads, subscriptions) but now digital has pulled away many of those ads and eyeballs so print is scrambling — and everyone rushes to produce “branded content” singing the praises of corporate interests.


      I am so old school that it all horrifies me.

      But no less so than the 15 to 20% annual profits publishers made on our labor.

      1. You didn’t know that? I guess Americans (?) assume other nations behave the same way…? It’s unusual. I don’t know which other countries do it but Britain is notorious for it.

  2. i have to say that i agree that most people probably have many misconceptions about the journalism/media industry and how it all works. i always learn from you, a seasoned veteran, and wish that things were different, i so value real journalism.

    1. Which is likely normal — since all they “know” about us is silly TV news (mostly crime, violence and weather) and rarely see a print reporter actually at work.

      I wish there were more/better ways to explain what we do and why we do it — to large audiences.

  3. Jan Jasper

    this topic is incredibly important. And I’m stunned that journalists paying sources is common in the UK. How can anyone in the UK believe what they read, knowing this? The press would have little to no credibility.

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