Reporters covering underprivileged communities face pressure to pay sources

February 5, 2019
North Korean flag. Photo: Dion Gillard, via flickr.

When Jo was in her mid-20s, her family, in North Korea, arranged for her to marry a man who “made a lot of money,” she told me. He sold black market goods to China—frog oil, medicinal herbs, sea cucumber. When they met, she had a bad feeling, but she would be well fed, and that’s rare in North Korea. Once they married, he began trading and taking drugs. When they fought, it was physical. One day, he held a knife to her throat and threatened to slit it. “I had to leave if I wanted to live,” she said.

It was autumn, 2012. By then, Jo had a daughter, who she dropped off at her mother’s place. Then she made her way to the Yalu river, to cross the border into China. She carried only the clothes on her back, a bag with money—the equivalent of less than $1,000—and salt that, if she sprinkled along her path, would fend off evil. Jo was well aware that state media denounces those who defect as “human scum” and, if caught, authorities would lock her up. If she made it safely to South Korea, Jo told herself, she’d find a way to bring her daughter over.

Jo, now 40 years old, recounted this story to me on the outskirts of Seoul, as part of an independent reporting project I was doing on North Korean women. A well-respected journalist who’d also fled North Korea had helped me set up the interview. The journalist, whom I’ll call May, had talked with me in person, and on the phone; we’d discussed several times the ethics of such an interview: I couldn’t pay Jo but I could offer her a meal, pay for her transportation, and compensate her for any lost income.

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We finished the interview and Jo left the room to use the bathroom. May came in. “Now she needs to be paid,” she said. May explained: “No defector would sit through a two-hour interview without being paid.” Then, May added, “all media,” including US, British, and Japanese pay. She reasoned that Jo needed the money to live—like many of the roughly 30,000 North Koreans living in Seoul, she was struggling financially. It turned out that May had already promised Jo the equivalent of roughly $200 for the interview. I was expected to pay.  

This wasn’t the first time I’d heard, at least anecdotally, of foreign media organizations paying for interviews with defectors. It also wasn’t the first time I’d been asked to pay for interviews and information, both directly and indirectly. Once, someone asked if I’d donate to her organization, of which she was the head; another time, a source asked if I’d translate a set of documents from Korean to English—at my expense—to which I’d have “exclusive access,” except the translated version would be passed around for advocacy purposes. Some fixers incorporate interview rates in their daily fee; surreptitiously pay defectors without the journalist knowing; or, worse still, recycle the same individuals for multiple interviews, compounding the trauma with which many defectors live. Over the course of a few weeks in South Korea, the matter of payment must have come up dozens of times.

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Reporters working with vulnerable populations, particularly in conflict situations, often face a high-stakes predicament: the job of bearing witness demands of us the highest ethical standards. At the same time, we confront extreme suffering, and even our pocket change might change someone’s circumstances, at least temporarily. Most of us in this profession do it so that we can expose injustice and maybe even improve lives; the belief is that reporting can influence the powerful to create humane policies. And yet journalism ethics forbid us to provide direct aid—or influence the story—by sharing our cash with those in need. Are there circumstances in which such hard-and-fast rules do not apply?


The practice of paying for information—according to John Cook, a reporter, writing for CJR in 2011—is, among American journalists, “generally regarded as falling in the same moral category as paying for sex.” The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) admonishes journalists to “be wary of sources offering information for favors or money; avoid bidding for news.” Mike Farrell, one of the SPJ’s board members, explained in an SPJ ethics position paper: “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.”

In practice, however, this rule can feel abstruse, and some journalists told me that applying a certain level of flexibility is morally correct. Ryan Lenora Brown, the Christian Science Monitor’s Africa correspondent, has reported across the continent. “If you don’t grow up steeped in a Western-style of journalism that demands that sources never be paid and everyone participate freely as a way to bring knowledge to your society, it’s not something that necessarily makes sense,” Brown says. “It’s a culturally-specific idea that we treat as universally applicable.” When fixers have suggested that Brown pay sources for interviews in numerous countries—including Uganda, Tanzania, and northern Nigeria—she has declined, but if an interviewee shares her time without expectation of return, Brown buys goods from her business (perhaps a restaurant or shop), if she has one, or offers a meal. In Sierra Leone, when Brown interviewed several former Ebola burial workers, she paid those workers for “transport,” since they took time off work and other responsibilities.

Other journalists have suggested that paying for documents, in some circumstances, can be advantageous. That argument was advanced by Cook in this magazine: if paying for documents provides evidence of massive and systemic abuses of the public trust, he suggested, then there must be room to bend the rules, especially if those stories might otherwise go untold. Where Cook would draw the line is in paying someone for testimonies or interviews; those stories could corrupt the final product and create incentives for embellishment. But what if, in some cases, paying for interviews would serve the public interest?

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The Daily Mail, a British tabloid, paid for an interview in 2011 with Virginia Roberts, who in the early 2000s was 16 and working at Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort when she was approached to work as a masseuse for Jeffrey Epstein, an investment banker. Roberts later described to the Miami Herald that she was groomed to sexually pleasure Epstein and his friends, including Prince Andrew (who denies they had sex). Since the Daily Mail’s interview with Roberts, several women have come forward accusing Epstein of sexually abusing hundreds of girls, and some of Epstein’s victims are pursuing a case in federal court. One woman, going by the pseudonym of Katie Johnson, claims in a 2016 lawsuit that she was raped by Trump at a party Epstein held in 1994 at his mansion in Manhattan; she was 13 years old. (Trump denies this.) Would these details have been exposed had the Daily Mail not paid Virginia Roberts? It’s impossible to know, but I can’t help but wonder if in this case the payment was valid.

What’s clearly problematic is when legitimate journalism is commercialized and subjects expect payment because they’ve received it before—the case I experienced in South Korea. Others have confronted the same dilemma: Omar Hama Saley, a freelance journalist and fixer for international media in Niger, who I spoke to over WhatsApp in French, told me that his job has become more challenging as commerçants (“or businesspeople”) have profiteered off journalists. People who have no experience in journalism have entered the fixing business in the Sahel, where they have told journalists that the only way to access interviews is by paying traffickers, smugglers, and migrants; the result is that not only have journalism teams paid for interviews, fuelling a dangerous smuggling network, but when Omar shows up to do his reporting or fixes for other journalists, he’s unable to access information and has faced threats because he refuses to pay. Sometimes, through negotiation, he gets access; other times he doesn’t.

The traffickers and smugglers run what Saley referred to as the “ghettos”—an area where migrants stay and rent houses—and, when Saley has gone to report, the bosses have demanded from him upwards of roughly $2,000 for access, none of which, he said, go to the migrants. The issue has become exponentially worse over less than a decade, as more and more journalists travel to cover the region. “The future will be dangerous if we as journalists do nothing to stop this and sensitize the population,” he says.  “Journalists are not businesspeople.”

When I understood that Jo had come to the interview expecting payment, I knew it was over and that the material was unusable. I was inclined to believe her testimony, yet I later learned that she’d spoken to a Japanese media organization that paid, and that made me skeptical. Did she furnish details she thought I wanted to hear? More important: did the fact that I paid the $200 for an unusable interview undermine my ethical obligations as a journalist?

This reporting was supported through a grant provided by the Reporting Award at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute as well as the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Howard G. Buffett Fund For Women Journalists.

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Annie Hylton is an independent investigative journalist and magazine writer based in Paris. She is an associate professor at Sciences Po.