Wednesday, April 20, 2011
Checking Against Checkbook Journalism
The issue of "conflict of interest" is one that I encounter on a regular basis as a reporter for the Athens News. When selecting a story to write, I must make sure not only that the particular news is something I am not involved with, but that my sources aren't either. However, with a smaller-scale paper in a town such as Athens, sometimes it does so happen that I bear some connection to what I am reporting on. And once in a while a friend of mine will just so happen to be the most credible source. It happens. In defense of my journalistic integrity, I myself am not benefitting from the situation, so I do not consider these minor infractions of my own personal code of ethics as morally incomprehensible. However, learning to avoid these situations also helps to eliminate the danger of engaging in the slippery slope that conflicting interest presents.
The power of the purse seems to be a major issue in most journalistic conflicts today. And rightfully so. Monetary rewards pose an enormous incentive for a journalist to write a story – and also an enormous incentive to write it in the interest of whoever is writing the check. Cited by author Robert Boynton in "Checkbook Journalism Revisited," the standard argument against checkbook journalism is that "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 couldn't agree more with this argument. There are separate vehicles for businesses and individuals to promote a certain image, such as through public relations and advertising tactics. Any reporter that accepts compensation from the subject of a story is, whether consciously or unconsciously, going to report with a tainted pen; this sort of payment creates an idea in the reporter's mind that they owe something to their source, which call fall in the form of a positively slanted story.
Whether the offense is as small as focusing in on the positive points of a story or as potentially dangerous as emitting crucial negative facts, the bias is still included in the story and therefore constitutes a crime against journalism ethics. Reporters have been entrusted by society with depicting the truth. Stories tinged with favoritism toward a source still come across to the public as factual expositions. Perhaps the majority of stories entangled with purse strings do not hurt the readers, but it's the moral questioning of whether or not accepting an endowment creates the risk of a reporter overstepping their boundaries. And almost all of the time, it does.
Check out this video on the iPhone 4G prototype that was sold to a tech blog. Should news blogs should be held to the same standards as traditional newspapers? How does the realm of influence differ in terms of audience understandings of the subjectivity of news websites versus those of blogs? Is it more acceptable for a blogger to accept perks given the nature of a blog as an opinion forum, or does the principle of the argument against checkbook standard still stand? These are all difficult questions, but ones I foresee being addressed more readily in the future as blogs begin to hold a more influential role in the news industry.