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What is Checkbook Journalism?

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  • Last Modified Date: 13 September 2016
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The term “checkbook journalism” describes situations in which reporters or news outlets pay for stories by providing financial compensation or assistance such as free flights in private aircraft or favors with government agencies. The practice of paying for news in various ways is not new, although periodically a flurry of high profile cases sparks debate about the practice; a 1962 feature in Time, for example, discussed checkbook journalism in the British press as a well established fact of reporting.

The simplest form of checkbook journalism occurs when a journalist or paper pays directly for an exclusive, in which someone accepts financial compensation in exchange for giving the paper the exclusive rights to report on the story, reprint images, and display video related to the story. Newspapers have been paying for exclusives for almost as long as they have been around and in highly competitive news markets it is not at all uncommon to find situations win which exclusivity deals have been arranged.

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Checkbook journalism can also be more subtle, with reporters and papers paying for access to materials rather than to a specific story, or with papers providing assistance which is contingent on exclusive access. For example, a newspaper might provide people with products and services they would otherwise have difficulty accessing, or attempt to pull strings using its connections to get certain favors granted. Likewise, journalists might do things like paying for lunch, covering bridge and road tolls, and so forth, to compensate people for costs incurred by participating in a story.

Critics of checkbook journalism argue that buying the story compromises journalistic integrity. It is difficult to create fair and balanced reporting when a paper is paying for a story, and expectations of payment can change the way in which people interact with journalists. People who are being paid for exclusives may also withhold information or change the information to cast themselves in a better light. Neutral reporting can be especially challenging when compensation is not made public, as it clearly influences the story.

Others argue that checkbook journalism is an entrenched and natural practice which is unlikely to be abolished in the near future. They suggest that steps could be taken to make it less ethically dubious, such as setting limits on compensation for stories, fully disclosing any remuneration provided by newspapers for stories and access, and developing an ethical standard for handling situations in which people are paid for their stories.

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Clairdelune
Post 7

This issue of whether checkbook journalism is an ethical practice is a thorny one. It's true that media survives on getting exclusive stories - often by paying for them. This has been going on for a long time. When we hear these stories,we often don't get the whole story.

I like stories presented from investigative journalism. But checkbook journalism is such an important part of the media, I don't think it's going away anytime soon.

I'll take a story that has been investigated and reported from many different angles any day over a sensational story that was purchased. Some TV networks, magazines and internet sites actually do this.

fify
Post 6

Not just media and reporters, but a lot of celebrities, businessmen and politicians benefit from checkbook journalism too. I think almost all magazines pay for doing interviews with celebrities. I've heard of huge sums being paid to the celebrity in addition to any expenses like hotel-stay, food and photo sessions for the magazine.

Not only do the celebrities get to give an interview they want, often deciding on the questions the interviewer can ask them, but they also get free media coverage and advertisement. In return, the magazine will sell a lot more copies because people want to read the interview that a celebrity rarely gives.

bear78
Post 5

@turkay1-- Not necessarily. Even if other media copies the news and reports on it, the original place that reported it will get credit for it and everyone will know that it's their story. I'm sure there are rules and laws about publication and reporting rights as well, so channels and websites can't just go on copying news or they will get sued for it.

A lot of checkbook journalism has been done about news from Iraq and Afghanistan. I remember a TV channel had covered a story about the dancing boys in Afghanistan. They traveled to Afghanistan, paid for all of the expenses there and interviewed various officials and regular Afghanis for this story. They aired the program for several weeks part by part and it was watched by so many people. No one else had access to this report and everyone knew that it belonged to this particular channel entirely.

candyquilt
Post 4

I understand the importance of checkbook journalism back when internet wasn't around and the only way for people to get news was through a newspaper, radio station or a TV channel. When a channel bought a story then, it really would be the only one airing it and would get all of the viewer ratings and appreciation.

I don't see the point of checkbook journalism now though because almost everything is easily available online. Tens of websites can share the same news by simply citing the original content provider. So paying for a story now does not guarantee that everyone will see the story from you directly.

Bhutan
Post 3

@SurfNturf - Ratings do pay the bills. The problem is that journalism now has to have some entertainment value which really waters down traditional journalism.

This is why you see stories about obscure reality stars instead of hearing about issues that are really more important. The media is well aware that entertainment sells papers and gets viewers so there has to be considerable fluff in many news programs. I often wonder, "Is journalism dying?"

surfNturf
Post 2

@Subway11- I know what you are saying but one of the networks did pay the Anthony family for the use of the pictures. This way they could say that they did not pay for the interview when they interviewed family members because the family received about $200,000 for the rights to use many of the pictures.

I personally think that the journalism objectivity is really hard to achieve when you pay people for their cooperation. This would be no different than a prosecutor paying a witness for their testimony. We would be outraged if this happened, but it happens in most journalism news day in and day out.

I also think that while people would be out raged

to know that a person like Casey Anthony was offered money for an interview, how many people would not watch it? I think that this is why some of the media is still trying to get an interview from her. They are hoping that people would still watch.

This is why I prefer investigative journalism pieces because they are truly acts of pure journalism that seek to inform the public with the new found information. There is value to this type of journalism while tabloid journalism is really superficial and only out to get ratings.

subway11
Post 1

I think that the public is becoming more media savvy, and they can really turn on a news or publishing outlet that promotes a person that is hated in society. For example, take the Casey Anthony trial, no one has gotten an exclusive because no network wants to be associated with this women for the fear of the backlash that would occur because most of the public believes that she got away with murdering her child.

In fact I read that one of the networks were trying to get around this problem by trying to get a well known publisher to give Casey Anthony a huge book deal in exchange for an interview. This really helps the network stay

true to the claim that they did not pay for the interview. The problem is that no publisher wants anything to do with her either for the exact same reasons.

I think that if the public were not so against Casey Anthony I could easily see anyone of these media outlets offer her money for a story. I think that everyone wants ratings and some may not care that unethical journalism took place.

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