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Is Checkbook Journalism Compromising Credibility in the Field?

by on October 29, 2015

The broadcast television world is in a state of play right now. With the decline of print journalism, television is picking up the viewers more engaged by the visual medium. With the new coming advent of cable news there comes an availability as well as burden of airtime to fill. Many stations are becoming hyper competitive against each other, all fighting to have the most dramatic and groundbreaking stories. Every station wants to break the story first, or air the first interview and subjects of these headlining stories have caught on. Now the first discussion is how much money they will be making from spilling their story or sharing a photo.

A whole new market of corrupt journalism has been created involving news corporations handing out large checks and other perks for interviews, photos, emails, and other “licensing fees” that is the backdrop for a story. This trend has created a heated controversy in the journalistic world, many sham corporations for using this tactic claiming they are losing their own credibility by strengthening the market for “checkbook journalism”. In the journalistic world there are legitimate licensing fees for freelance journalists and photographers, as well as witnesses not involved in the story, but many feel paying firsthand sources off is a false claim to our integrity. However because of the nature of the visual platform, viewers are encouraged to question the reliability of the sources and supporting evidence to follow up a picture or video.

The dangerous relationship involved in this trend is the one imbedded in the financial arrangements. It is very easy to see where this market could become corrupt when large sums of money are being handed around. The juicier the story, the more its worth, people are eager to hop on the opportunity to spin a story into a dramatized version of the truth for some extra cash. It may not be malicious, but in a situation many find themselves trying to give the story they think you would want to broadcast, in turn saying untrue or exaggerated things.

So the question becomes how do we bring in the reigns of a market that is already becoming out of control. Jeff Fager, a chairman of CBS News said, “If you’re in the business of having to pay people to get a story, it can’t be worth it.” Once a trend of taboo among journalists, now many of those are the ones writing off the large checks. To eliminate this market, Poynter Institute of Journalism Ethics Group claims it needs to be reversed. Licensing fees need to be limited to freelancers, witnesses, and not the actual source. Networks have always disclosed when they license photos and videos that appear on the air, however the price and affect of these payments is never discussed.

I believe if these networks are afraid to reveal the figures written on these checks, then there obviously paying too much. This practice leaves too much availability for viewers to question the reliability of the story, and therefore the network. Too often now a day, dramatic groundbreaking stories are aired too quickly and end up being fraud accounts in a hoax to get money. There’s no reason broadcast journalism should cross a line that print journalism has yet to cross.


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  1. josephcurrier permalink

    It is easy to understand the desire for broadcast outlets to want to pay money for exclusive stories. They have so many competitors constantly looking to get ahead of each other or keep other outlets down. We saw that in the episode of The Newsroom that we watched in class. Your job depends on where you place in the ratings. Ethics can become less important when your job is on the line. All that matters to you is improving your ratings and keeping your job. It also feels less unethical to pay someone for something like an on camera interview. What they’re doing seems more like work. They aren’t an anonymous source. They aren’t a named source just meeting you at a coffee shop or talking to you on the phone. They are going on camera. They are doing something that people usually get paid for.

    But I do not agree with the practice of checkbook journalism. It is counterintuitive to good journalism. Paying for news seems inherently unethical by itself to me, but far more concerning is what this checkbook journalism encourages. It encourages sensationalism. It encourages false stories. It encourages sources to exaggerate or outright lie when they’re telling their stories. How much they get paid is determined by how good their story is. It could be argued that the same is true for journalists, but they have standards that they are beheld to. They are constantly checked by editors and ultimately the public. I’m not sure the same standards and skepticism exists when paying for exclusive stories. You want the story to be true so badly that you don’t thoroughly fact check it. You believe someone who is incentivized to tell a sensationalistic story.

    I agree with your point that broadcast outlets should be held to the same standards as print outlets. Our media is changing and people are consuming media in different ways. It is important that we uphold uniform journalistic standards across all formats.

  2. Undoubtedly, yes Checkbook Journalism does not only Compromise news Credibility, it also “threaten to undermine journalism.” ( the fact of allowing outlets to pay for information causes their sources to make up stories or to exaggerate the truth of it since sources are aware that the more they provide intriguing information, the more the reward will be bigger. “It is very easy to see where this market could become corrupt when large sums of money are being handed around.”( Sharon Dove, Umassjournethics.wordpress). Paying to acquire news create conflict of interest and it provoke distrust between journalists and their sources. Journalists after spending money, will ask difficult questions as if they were evaluating the credibility of the source. On the other hand, the source will make an effort telling huge stories so it will not lose the journalist who may hire them next time for the same purpose. Additionally, paying for news will affect journalists’ motivations of furthering searches for more details because they fear that search will reveal details that will conflicts what they have for information. There is another good reason for outlets to feel unethical in what they are doing as soon as there is something holding them back from preceding to seek truth or fact checking. According to spj, outlets that happened to pay for news should disclose that to their readers, which I personally don’t see happening especially as Josephcurrier (Umassjournethics.wordpress) has said “They have so many competitors constantly looking to get ahead of each other or keep other outlets down.”

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