Watch: A conversation with incoming SPJ Executive Director Caroline Hendrie

Caroline Hendrie joins SPJ President Ashanti Blaize-Hopkins to discuss her career, the state of the industry, and her vision for SPJ’s next chapter.

Home > Ethics > SPJ Ethics Committee Position Papers > Checkbook Journalism

SPJ Ethics Committee Position Papers
Checkbook Journalism

Money can corrupt almost anything it touches, and that certainly includes the news. The practice of paying for information, known as checkbook journalism, threatens to corrupt journalism.

Paying for interviews, directly or indirectly through so-called licensing fees, is now accepted practice in Great Britain and has been used by tabloid publications in the United States. Recently, broadcast networks also engaged in the practice.

The Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists admonishes journalists to “Be wary of sources offering information for favors or money; avoid bidding for news,” and the Society’s Ethics Committee has repeatedly in recent years criticized news outlets that bought exclusive access to interviews through payments, so-called licensing fees for photos or videos or in-kind rewards, such as private plane rides.

Checkbook journalism undermines journalistic independence and integrity and threatens the accuracy of the information that is purchased.

First, paying for information immediately calls into question the credibility of the information. Readers or viewers have a legitimate right to wonder whether the source is disclosing this information because the information is important or because the source is getting paid for it.

They also can’t be blamed for wondering whether the source is telling the outlet the truth, telling the outlet what it wants to hear or embellishing the truth to increase the value of the information. If good information is worth so much, better information, true or not, would be worth more. Gone is the altruistic motive of telling other members of the community what the source knows, brushed away by the lure of making money off of the information.

Creating a market for information that sells also raises the possibility that entrepreneurs looking to make money will create their own news, staging or inventing stories to attract the big checks.

Second, paying for information creates a conflict of interest. By writing a check for an interview, the journalist now has a business relationship with the source. Asking tough questions, examining the motives, weighing the credibility of a source — all of these journalistic functions become intricately more complicated when the source is someone receiving money for a story.

And third, once a media outlet has paid for information, it is less likely to continue to search for the details of the story for fear it might uncover conflicting information.

A source who chooses to tell a story and tell it exclusively should want to choose the reporter who has the clearest record of demonstrated competence rather than the one waving the largest check.

While it is true that journalism is a capitalistic endeavor and money must be made, being first and being exclusive should never be the primary motive of journalists. The primary motive always should be an accurate report. That usually involves a lot of hard work, interviews and phone calls. A check is no substitute or shortcut to the credible, contextual and accurate news story that democracy demands to inform citizens.

In an era when the economic model of journalism has been turned on its head and outlets everywhere have reduced reporting staff, paying exorbitant fees for information that could have been used for journalists who could report more than just one big story is not good economics either.

At a minimum, news outlets that pay for an interview owe their audience full disclosure of that payment. The disclosure should be made clearly, prominently and consistently every time the outlet utilizes its exclusive coverage. That allows readers or viewers to assess the credibility of that purchased information.

The practice of checkbook journalism threatens to corrupt the newsgathering and reporting functions of the media. Because journalism — accurate and credible news — is so essential to the maintenance of a democracy, checkbook journalism is not only unethical, it threatens to undermine journalism and damage democracy.

This statement expresses the views of the SPJ Ethics Committee. It was written by committee member Mike Farrell, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Kentucky and the director of the Scripps Howard First Amendment Center. He was a reporter and editor for almost 20 years at The Kentucky Post.

Join SPJ
Join SPJWhy join?