Thursday, April 28, 2011

Never Write a Check Your Career Can't Cash

Cotrell Loftin

We all like to be ahead in life. We want to be the first kid picked to play dodgeball, the person at the head of the line, and the one who wins the race leaving the person in second place with an eyeful of dust. This is also true of the very competitive field of journalism. But will we do anything to be on top including pay our way there?

Checkbook journalism is the practice of paying someone for a news story and especially for granting an interview (Merriam-Webster). It is a sure-fire way to lose all credibility of the story and, in a broader focus, one's entire career. Paying sources presents the impression that instead of accurate facts and truthful re-tellings of events as they actually happened, sources simply say what they think the reporter wants to hear in order to receive compensation in the form of money or favors. In a sense, one can say it is bribery of sources to fabricate an even more compelling story than the one being reported even if it was unintentional.

An NBC story was compromised because of checkbook journalism. They had the main subject for their story flown in on a private jet in order to interview him.

Another form of checkbook journalism can also be compensating a journalist to write a positive story. Many food journalists and critics are faced with this dilemma. Restaurants attempt to "wine and dine" journalists hoping to get good reviews. How would they be able to write about the food if they do not taste it? The accepted practice is to buy one's own food and then report about what was eaten. How can there possibly be objectivity in this field of journalism when there are restaurants willing to buy good reviews? The most delicious food and the finest, sweetest wine to ever be sipped all at your beck and call. Tempting isn't it?

Many journalists and professionals in the field are opposed to the practice of checkbook journalism. Yet, many news organizations do not have explicit codes of ethics against it. Why not have codes against what is not generally accepted? Perhaps it is assumed that no one would do what is unacceptable. Yet, this same logic does not explain why people lie, steal, kill, commit fraud or any of the countless other crimes people think are unacceptable. Maybe it is another mystery for all you future journalists to solve.

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