Friday, January 11, 2008

Revisiting Checkbook Journalism

I think I'm not joining the fray on the television ratings brouhaha--yet. The amount of vitriol spewed everywhere by parties concerned and television fans over the controversy makes me dizzy even by just thinking about it. So maybe a bit later, but not now.

Here's an interesting journalism issue Howie Severino posted in his blog. Should journalists pay their sources?

The standard argument against checkbook journalism is that paying for information creates an additional incentive for subjects to lie or embellish the truth.

As the supposed watchdogs on power, journalists have to watch our own. We tiptoe through ethical minefields daily. Among my off-camera roles at our network is to sound a warning when we're about to blow our legs off. Of course no one is perfect so I'm glad that's just a figurative analogy or we'd have more than a few legless journalists crawling around.

Among those issues we wrestle with is how we should relate to our subjects/characters aka case studies, those people we focus our stories on. In long-format shows like I-Witness, we sometimes ask these folks, many of whom earn subsistence livelihoods, to spend days and often nights with us. Should we pay them for their efforts?

The gut reflex for journalists is to refuse because of the principle of non-payment for information. But I recently read a thoughtful essay reassessing that view in the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR).

Read here for more of Howie's thoughts on the issue.

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