Thursday, April 21, 2011

Checkbook Journalism Doesn't Add Up

Mallory Long

In the three years I spent writing for The Post, I learned that Athens is a particularly difficult place to avoid conflicts of interest - especially as a beat reporter - because of the relatively small size of the city. I spent two years as the gender issues staff writer at The Post and eventually stepped down because I (and my editors) felt I had become much too close with my sources and I wanted to avoid and conflicts of interest. This week's readings were very interesting to me, because I learned that the majority of journalists seem to have the same anxieties I did about fair and unbiased reporting.

I was particularly interested in one section of Columbia Journalism Review's Checkbook Journalism Revisited. Near the end of the first page, Boynton says, "In the wake of the James Frey, Stephen Glass, and Jayson Blair scandals, journalists and journalism educators have become obsessed with the profession's ethics. While it is undoubtedly good that the profession is more self-conscious about its values, I worry that we sometimes emphasize it to a fault. ... In particular, I fear my students are less concerned with getting great stories than maintaining journalistic virtue." These paragraphs really resonated with me because I think the author makes a very good point. In the last three years, my journalism classes have drilled right and wrong into my head over and over. It seems as though every class is the journalism school had addressed media ethics to a point, but I have found through internships and talking with media professionals that in "the real world," publications put much less stress on ethics than journalism schools. I even had a professor tell me that biased reporters are often the best reporters (which I am not sure I can agree with).

However, there is obviously a line between being a slightly biased reporter and a reporter paying or being paid for a story. I honestly can't even wrap my head around the idea of payment for stories: journalists are already being paid (and should clearly know better), and sources should be willing to be interviewed for reasons other than money, such as their personal responsibility to the public (particularly if he or she is a public figure). In Checkbook Journalism Revisited, Boynton says, "Paying for information creates an additional incentive for subjects to lie or embellish the truth. And even if a subject tells the truth, the fact that he's been paid undermines the journalist's position as a disinterested observer." I agree with him very much -- adding payoffs to journalism creates the potential for a lot more conflict and a lot less ethical journalism.

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