Every day there are ethical decisions that impact the hundreds or thousands of people who watch, read, listen, and/or click on a media source. The foundation for making the right decision starts with ethics classes in college. Students in the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism will use this blog to reflect on ethical questions in the media today.
Sunday, September 22, 2013
Paying Sources: What's the Point?
In Checkbook Journalism’s Slippery Slope, the topic of paying
sources for information is brought up. It’s something that famously happened at
The Sun and News of the World, as Ryan Chittum mentioned.
Chittum includes quotes from an article by former Sun
editor Kelvin Mackenzie, about the topic of paying sources. Mackenzie said
that unless we pay our sources “How, otherwise, would we discover what’s really
Chittum said we would find out the truth by reporting it. I
could not agree more. In all honesty, Mackenzie's statement is one of the most absurd
things I’ve ever read. It doesn’t make much sense either. As journalists we
are supposed to seek out the truth. The key word there is “seek." We have to go
out and find the truth. We can’t wait for the truth to come to us from someone begging
to be paid for the information. If that was the only way to discover news, stories
like the Pentagon Papers and Watergate would still be hidden away in government
There are countless examples of journalists discovering
scandals by simply digging, investigating and questioning what they see.
A great recent example would be The Columbus Dispatch and
the Columbus City School system. The Dispatch was able to uncover the scandal
and corruption going on in Columbus City Schools by doing investigative
journalism. The reporters did not have to pay anyone to get the information
they needed. The reporters went through internal audit reports and were
unable to uncover that Columbus City School employees were falsifying students'
records to improve their schools' standing on state report cards. The scandal
has become so complicated and layered that there is a whole section of The
Dispatch’s website dedicated to the scandal and the latest information about
If paying sources were to become a popular trend in our
industry, how could we ever trust a source again? How would we ever know if
they were really telling us everything they know about a topic?
They answer is we couldn’t. We wouldn’t be able to trust
sources. And if we can’t trust sources there is no way for us to accurately do
Why is paying sources something journalists are
considering when we’ve been able to get information for free from sources for
decades? What has changed that has made journalists believe the only way to get
the whole truth is to pay someone for it?
In my journalistic work for The Post over the last year, I
have yet to encounter a source who wanted to be paid for the information they
shared with me. None of my friends who work for The Post or WOUB or other
campus media have encountered it either. There is no reason to have to pay a
source for information. For the most part, people want to be heard; they want
to share their stories.