Sunday, September 22, 2013

Paying Sources: What's the Point?

Maria DeVito

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 happening?”

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 secrecy.

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 it.

Mackenzie was wrong to say paying sources is the only way to discover truth. If he really believes that, he must be the laziest journalist to ever work in our industry.  

Paying sources is sloppy journalism. It’s lazy. It’s unprofessional. It’s irresponsible. It’s unethical.

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 our jobs.

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.      

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