Why not pay sources? My objections are practical, not ethical.

Media criticism.
April 29 2010 6:52 PM

Why Not Pay Sources?

My objections are practical, not ethical.

Does paying for news make for worse journalism?
Does paying for news make for worse journalism?

Last week, Gawker Media made new again the old debate about whether journalists should pay sources for information. The company's Gizmodo gadgets site reported that it paid $5,000 for a iPhone prototype that was "found lost" in a Redwood City, Calif., bar.

Yet the Gizmodo case isn't a perfect entry point for a revival of the paid-sources debate. San Mateo County authorities, who appear to be interpreting the transaction as a crime in which the finder moved stolen goods, seized the computers of Gizmodo's writer with a search warrant. Gawker Media, wallowing in the publicity, has cried foul and has hoisted the California shield law that protects journalists from some warrants and subpoenas.

Assuming, for the purposes of this column, that Gawker's purchase of the iPhone was legal, was it right? Should journalists pay for interviews, documents, photos, and electronic prototypes? The ethics cops who police journalists would give you an unqualified no, saying that financial motives taint whatever information is collected with a dollar. That's why these ethics types disdain operations like the National Enquirer and TMZ.com, which proudly pay sources.

But are there no circumstances under which a reporter should buy a document or interview or gadget? What if Daniel Ellsberg, who photocopied the Pentagon Papers before giving them to the New York Times, had—instead of turning over the documents for free—asked the newspaperfor $10,000 to cover those photocopying costs, plus shipping and handling, plus expected legal expenses? Would the average Times reader suffer a taint overload? Or, if the payment were disclosed in the Times, would readers feel as calm as I suspect most of the millions of readers of the Gizmodo iPhone scoop felt?

If an exchange of money between source and journalist had accelerated the reporting of the Iran-Contra scandal or moved the Abu Ghraib photos into print faster, how much would you protest? You probably would not avert your eyes from the reporting. And when other, more "ethical" news organizations chased and caught the story that paying sources produced, I doubt you'd avert your eyes then, either.

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Not all payments to sources are automatically evil. Slate's Timothy Noah wrote about one of the more defensible payments to sources in a 1998 piece about journalist Michael Massing. In the reporting of The Fix, a book about the drug trade and drug policy, Massing bought low-level sources cheeseburgers and cigarettes and disclosed it on the page. "One Spanish Harlem drug lieutenant charged Massing $200 for four interviews that Massing judged 'a worthwhile investment,' " Noah writes.

My objections to paying sources are mostly practical. If you want more of anything, economists tell us, increase the price. If journalists started paying for information rather than demanding it for free, bushels of that information, accompanied by sellers, would miraculously appear overnight outside the door of every newspaper, broadcaster, and Web site.

The info-glut would come with a catch. If, say, you announced you were paying $50 a pound for tomatoes, scores of vendors would assemble outside your home offering beautiful tomatoes, rotten tomatoes, canned tomatoes, and tennis balls painted tomato-red. The costs of grading the harvest would probably exceed the cost of the tomatoes you purchased, making you regret your initiative. It would be the same if reporters paid for news. How much truth, as opposed to half-truth, would people sell? How many patently false bundles of information, ginned up solely to collect a bounty, would the dollars generate?

The paid-source debate frequently neglects to acknowledge that sources often profit from feeding journalists free information. Give a journalist some useful information, and, whether or not you're cited in the story, you'll feel an instant ego boost. If cited, you'll probably reap an increase in status or the appreciation of your boss, your fellow club members, or your clan. You may get a better job or win a raise. Or you may find yourself enriched by the knowledge that the document you leaked helped do good or (better still) helped punish your enemies. It's the rare source who has no motive, which means that a journalist must be vigilant whether cash changes hands or not. Removing money from the motive-assessment process may simplify it, but it can never erase it.

As a journalist who has never purchased information from a source (note: a meal or two, or a drink or three, or reimbursement for photocopying expenses, or a short lift to the source's destination don't count as payment), I would probably go insane if every source demanded cash for information. In my nightmare scenario, sources of free information would dry up and people would charge a metered rate just to talk. As my questions started to converge upon the answers I was looking for, I'd become hostage to my source as he flipped the flag on his meter and said, "More questions? More money!" Oh, the haggling that would ensue! Where would I ever find the time to file the actual story?

Yet if paying for information is inherently unethical, why do so many respected institutions practice it? Police officers pay snitches on the street for information. Rewards are paid to those who report fraud against the government. Legal defenses pay expert witnesses for their testimony.

Besides, "respectable" U.S. news organizations have been buying information from sources for decades. As the American Journalism Reviewreported in 1999, the New York Times paid for the Titanic scoop in 1912 by giving a wireless operator $1,000 for his story, the Hearst newspaper chain covered the Lindbergh kidnapping defendant's legal bills during the trial to keep information flowing, and Life magazine paid the Mercury-7 astronauts for their stories. In his book, If No News, Send Rumors, Stephen Bates reports that a 19th-century speaker of the House charged reporters for interviews, earning hundreds of dollars a week; that the Times paid Charles Lindbergh $5,000 for the story of his flight; and that the Times also paid for Robert E. Peary's North Pole expedition in exchange for an "exclusive" on his story.

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