What does arguably the greatest emcee of all time have to do with journalism ethics? That’s a fair question. Allow me to clarify.
Ryan Chittum’s article, “Checkbook Journalism’s Slippery Slope” in the “Colombia Journalism Review” discusses how a news outlet in the U.K has been basically paying its sources for information left and right. The tone of the article suggests that Chittum is rather displeased with the way that the news outlet goes about it’s business, and with the owner of the outlet, who has been breaking Journalism’s rules for years it seems.
I’m pretty sure that most people who think of themselves as being associated with the term: journalist, would find the practice of paying sources for information to be an outrage. I mean, yeah, they write neat feature stories and they have their opinions on things. But, in essence, what makes a good reporter a good reporter is their relationships with their sources, and their ability to get information from those sources (and sometimes information that those sources would normally never want to give). It’s the most important part of the job. No matter how good of a writer you are, or how well you know AP style, or whatever, if you can’t get the information, then the people won’t trust you. If the people can’t trust you, why would they read your work?
The journalism world is a non-stop competition for information, readers, clicks, etc. Every writer is competing for people’s attention with all the other writers in the world who think their piece is going to stand out from the rest. In an environment that naturally has so much competition, there is bound to be pressure. Pressure from editors to produce better content than the competing publications, pressure from the looming deadlines that are constantly hanging over a journalist’s head, and the pressure to get the “scoop.” I will give an example relating this situation to the best thing I know how to relate anything to: sports. The “scoop” in sports would be an all star free agent mulling over his many offers to join new teams. Whenever that player makes his decision, every reporter that covers that league would give their left arm to be the first media member to know about the decision. So, is it really any surprise that people with the means to do so are paying people for information?
There are few things that people love more in this world than money, and making their jobs easier. These are the two ends of the spectrum in the source bribing scandal in the UK. On one hand, the sources who have clearly been told not to leak certain information will gladly disregard their bosses’ wishes if you can help them pay their rent every month or give you a little extra fun-ticket-with-the-family money. On the other hand, you have journalists, who by ethical journalistic standards are already questionable at the least, they have the same deadline pressures as every other journalist in the world, and their information is far more important to them than the average beat reporter or white house correspondent. In the tabloid world, if you can somewhat corroborate any kind of wild rumor about someone famous, you have yourself a major scoop to bring back to your editor who will surely sing your praises. It’s front page stuff, and people will know your name. So, if all you have to do is pay them to make your day, it is reasonable to expect that some people stoop down and pay for what they want. As for the paying off of public officials and police and such go, that sounds like avoiding jumping through hoops to ask a question that you most likely won’t get a straight answer to anyway.