Sunday, January 10, 2010

Journalism for Sale to the Highest Bidder -- Get Out Your Checkbook

I wanted to call your attention to a column on the disturbing rise in "checkbook journalism." I hope this is a blip and not a trend, but unfortunately it may be the latter.

The Washington City Paper recently published an column by Dave McKenna on the subject. Inspired by the latest case when NBC News chartered a private jet for David Goldman to return with his son from Brazil after a long, drawn-out custody fight. NBC says this isn't checkbook journalism, because they technically did not pay for the story itself, but only paid thousands of dollars to charter a private plane and then got an exclusive or two... hmmmm, interesting logic.

Then he talks about the recent payments by ABC and CNN for photos from Jasper Schuringa, a passenger on the XMAS Day Northwest airlines flight where the passengers thwarted a bomb that happened to be located in the underwear of a would-be terrorist. Schuringa apparently gave his first interviews to the new organizations who bought his photos.

McKenna makes the point that "Checkbook journalism" is a term coined in the 70s, has been around in some form or another for some time. With that said, perhaps we are entering into some kind of resurgence of the practice, through tangential payment schemes.

It is important in terms of transparency that IF news organizations are doing this (which they shouldn't at all!), they should AT LEAST be transparent about what transactions might be underlying their content. Otherwise, it is only through other sources that this is leaked, or comes to light at all.

The entire practice of checkbook journalism will damage all organizations who proactice journalism. It should be completely avoided. However, if an organization does do this in some form, not disclosing these versions of payments make it even worse, as people are left to wonder if EVERY story has some underlying payment attached it.

So, if major journalism organizations are going to engage in payment-like practices (calling into question their long term viability to call themselves journalism organizations), the least you can do is disclose it. If you don't think it is something to be embarrassed about, then why hide it. This is important to media literacy and letting the consumer put the pieces together and giving them the right to make their own call.


  1. well hello - as if the money was bad enough - apparently some organizations(New York Times, Financial Times) also forget the 5 Ws of Journalism. check out last week's show on my site.

  2. Maybe I need to be educated here.

    If I have had a traumatic experience, and the world wants to know about it, I am supposed to give it up to all the news outlets that are interested for free, so they can earn mega bucks through my story, and I am supposed to sink back into poverty and obscurity with nothing to show for my experience but the emotional scars?

    I don't think I understand the economics of journalism.