Off the Media: Pay Your Sources

NPR’s On the Media in its show before the most recent episode brought up the issue of paying sources and brought back some poignant thoughts about whether and why sources should or shouldn’t be paid. Sure, there are all the usual arguments about polluting the system, encouraging untruths, and starting a slippery slope of checkbook journalism. But, “I've always just questioned that taboo on talking about money,” says guest Robert Boynton, an NYU journalism professor.

I’ve been asked more than once, “Why should I help you?” Some folks I’ve interviewed have even pointed out that I’m being paid to report, that the organization I’m working for (whether a newspaper or TV show) is money-making, even for profit, and so why should we reporters feel sanguine about asking or requiring that the grist for our work be provided for free? It’s a hard question to answer, when you can’t say “for publicity that will help your business,” or if someone isn’t buying the argument that getting the word out may help others in other situations or that simply getting it off their chest will be liberating.

In Japan, it’s common to pay sources, especially when they’re experts -- and, yes, they also get the advantage of publicity. There is, in giving over a token amount of cash, a display of gratitude, and acknowledgement that value has been given. I had one uncomfortable interview in Tokyo while working for Newsweek, when an expert in the construction and maintenance of the Bullet Train gave me some inside information about troubles the line had had in its earlier days. I wondered why he was telling me such info so frankly. At the end, he expected -- as he had come to expect from journalists -- a gratuity, and it was left to a Japanese co-worker to explain to him, with both in considerable discomfort, that American organizations didn’t do that. I was uncomfortable, too.

As OTM co-host Bob Garfield and guest Robert Boynton point out in the radio piece, even when no money is exchanged there is a currency of those who give their time and information in exchange for exposure, perhaps the chance to flog their point of view. Some journalists talk of disinterest in how money is made by the organization they work for, which I find a little odd. Is there another such for-profit industry, where the folks steeped in producing the product are willfully ignorant of how it's sold and makes money? There is certainly a coin of the realm, and one in which journalists spin and get spun, journalists and sources use each other in various ways. Boynton says it would be OK to pay, if it were disclosed that someone had done so. That would be an open and honest way of doing it. Let the consumer make his or her own decisions. And it would be more open than the hidden agendas the public sometimes can’t see.

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