Pay Up

Sources have their agendas. Why can’t money be one?
June 2, 2011

Paying for information is, among American journalists, generally regarded as falling in the same moral category as paying for sex. True reporters get their information cleanly and by the sweat of their brow, not by waving around soiled Andrew Jacksons. As the New York Times’s ethics policy puts it, “We do not pay for interviews or unpublished documents: to do so would create an incentive for sources to falsify material….”

As a former writer for Brill’s Content, where I was one of founder Steve Brill’s ethical shock troops, I subscribed to that logic for many years. I felt dirty every time a source inquired about the possibility of payment for an interview or documents: Of course not. What sort of reporter do you think I am?

And then a couple things happened as I went about my career not paying anybody for information: I didn’t break the story of how British members of Parliament had been paying for the upkeep of moats around their second homes as taxpayer-financed expenses, a scandal that helped bring down the Labour government. That honor went to The Daily Telegraph, which reportedly paid between $210,000 and $420,000 for a spreadsheet containing years’ worth of egregious expense reports.

Then I failed to break the story of the former presidential candidate who spawned a love-child behind the back of his cancer-stricken wife and made a sex tape with the mistress while repeatedly lying about the affair and cajoling his billionaire backers into paying her hush money. No, The National Enquirer—which avowedly pays for information—broke the John Edwards story under the noses of the mainstream political reporters who covered him day in and day out. (The Enquirer says it never doled out any money on the Edwards story, but do you believe them?)

And of course I missed out on acquiring an unretouched photo from a Redbook cover shoot proving just how radically and creepily women’s magazines use Photoshop to digitally hack away at their subjects. Jezebel, the sister site of my current employer, Gawker, paid $10,000 for that in 2007.

All of the above stories were true and important. None of them are less correct, or less pure, because filthy lucre was involved. And it’s not certain that any of them would have come to light absent a monetary inducement. Ethical squeamishness aside, if paying for evidence of massive and systemic abuses of the public trust is wrong, then I don’t want to be right.

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The main objection to paying sources is that it corrupts the final product. Paying people to talk to you creates a powerful incentive for them to say what you want to hear. That’s certainly true in the case of interviews and testimony, and I don’t think it’s advisable to pay someone to tell their story. But for information or documents that can be independently verified, it’s hard to see how the potential for a payday is different from the myriad other incentives there are for sources of news to invent or twist the information they provide to reporters. The New York Times understands that sources lie to its reporters for ideological or commercial reasons—indeed, it happens every day, and on most occasions, the Times’s estimable reporters are able to filter out the junk info. Everyone who ever provided a leaked document to the Times had an agenda, whether it was political or moral or personal. But if that agenda involves a check? The Times wouldn’t think of it.

Another reason upright defenders of journalistic propriety oppose payouts is that they’re often delivered under the table, hidden from the consumer. Television programs routinely mask such transactions by claiming that video or photographs were “licensed.” (No, we are not paying the Octomom to sit down exclusively with the Today show—we don’t pay for interviews. We do, however, need B-roll of the octuplets playing with mommy, and of course it is our practice to compensate license-holders for the use of their copyrighted material.)

Deals like that are dishonest and farcical. But what’s wrong with an open and transparent purchase of newsworthy information? Actual investigators—cops and private investigators—routinely pay for tips, whether in the form of cash or promises of help in reducing an informant’s sentence. It’s hard to see why reporters should be denied access to a technique that’s used all the time in the criminal justice system, where the stakes and standards of evidence are immeasurably higher.

Of course, if The New York Times and other papers don’t want their reporters paying for news, that’s fine. It means that the competitive advantage (for some stories, at least), will continue to go to the outlets that do pay. But it’s hard to argue that papers that abstain from payments are morally or professionally superior to those that do, when the latter are catching important stories that might otherwise go untold. 

John Cook is a reporter for Gawker.