As these writers attest, the question of what, whether, and when a journalist owes a source is never going to be obvious or straightforward. It is a discussion that takes place at the extremes of journalism, where the extraordinary duration and depth of the reporting put the writer-subject relationship on a different plane.

And for every Kotlowitz, Krakauer, and Harr, there is a Joe McGinnis, the best-selling author whose contractual relationship with Jeffrey MacDonald blew up in his face. In order to write Fatal Vision, an insider’s account of MacDonald’s 1983 murder trial, McGinnis agreed to share the proceeds of his book, going so far as to join the defense team. When McGinnis concluded that MacDonald was guilty after all, MacDonald sued him for fraud and breach of contract. That trial ended in a hung jury and McGinnis agreed to a substantial out-of-court payment to avoid a retrial.

More recently the ethics of former New York Times reporter Kurt Eichenwald’s 2005 investigation of online child pornography were questioned when it emerged that he had sent the boy who ended up as the central character in the piece a $2,000 check and several smaller amounts via PayPal. Eichenwald insists that he sent the money out of concern for the boy’s safety, and only later decided to write about him. His critics have suggested he blurred the line between concerned citizen and objective journalist. Whatever the truth of the matter, Eichenwald’s situation illustrates the complications that arise when one introduces money into the journalist-source equation, even if the person in question is not yet a source and the journalist’s intentions are noble.

One way to alleviate the ethical dilemma that comes from compensating a subject might be to publish more work under dual bylines—a practice frowned on by most serious magazines. Serious books often carry the names of two authors without slipping into the “as told to” gray zone of celebrity memoir. Although Sack’s article about Lieutenant Calley didn’t start off this way, it ended up credited as “by First Lieutenant William L. Calley Jr., interviewed by John Sack.” I don’t think the joint byline hurt either Esquire or Sack’s reputation (even though the controversial content of the article cost the magazine $200,000 in advertising). Another possibility is to pay the subject after the fact, although this makes the act of giving less one of compensation than of charity. Again, disclosure is the key to any such arrangement

My point is not that journalists should routinely compensate their sources. In the vast majority of cases, they shouldn’t. As professional skeptics, though, we should be suspicious of the knee-jerk way in which journalists invoke the “no money for information” rule. How convenient that our personal gain and our profession’s ethical principles are so perfectly aligned! Isn’t it possible that this prohibition is simultaneously true and a way of banishing awkward questions of money and exchange from our moral calculations? In the murky intimacy that comes with immersion reporting, we owe our sources everything. Perhaps this is why we try so hard to avoid the topic. 

 

Robert Boynton is the director of New York University's magazine writing program and author of The New New Journalism.