Paying for information

In today’s changing information market, it’s sometimes difficult to tell what is news and what is entertainment.

With the recent, rapid changes in gathering and reporting information, the mainstream news media no longer are the exclusive sources of “news.” The public gets its information from many sources: cable and network television, newspapers and magazine, blogs, web sites on home and laptop computers, and on a multitude of hand-held devices. Information is everywhere.

The mixture is such that the lines between news/information and entertainment are sometimes blurred. In the confusion that this blurring has caused, the ethical issue of “checkbook journalism” has stirred complaints and excuse

The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics and mainstream news media say news should not be purchased. However, entertainment media frequently pay for exclusive interviews and stories. Sometimes such payment is called a “licensing fee.”

Cable and network television present many “shows” that may be news and may be entertainment. Note that TV calls such programs “shows”:  the Rick Sanchez Show, the Dylan Ratigan Show, the Sean Hannity Show, the Today show, Good Morning America, etc. They are called shows, but they also are sources of news/information.

If, for example, the Today show pays a “licensing fee” for an exclusive interview with a person in the news, is that checkbook journalism or merely a standard practice in the entertainment business of “licensing” an exclusive television presentation?

Does paying for an interview or story diminish its credibility?

When is information news and when is it entertainment?

Here’s a brief quiz involving a hypothetical news/information situation:
A woman is lost for several days in a wilderness and is rescued by a search party in a helicopter. Which of the following different situations would you say are not ethical and why?
• A freelance journalist is at the scene when the rescued woman steps from the helicopter. An area newspaper buys her exclusive story and pictures.
• Several area news media buy the freelance journalist’s story and pictures.
• The freelance journalist invites the rescued woman to stay with her while waiting for family to arrive. In her home, the journalist interviews the woman and an area TV station buys the video.
• An area newspaper pays a freelance journalist to report on and take pictures at a press conference by the rescued woman.
• An area television station buys an exclusive story and video from a member of the rescue crew.
• An area television station pays for travel and accommodations for the rescued woman to appear in an exclusive interview on its morning talk show.
• A national magazine buys a story written by the rescued woman.
• A national network TV show flies the woman to New York for an exclusive appearance on its morning show. It pays all the woman’s expenses – hotel, meals, etc. It also broadcasts excerpts from the interview on its network newscasts.
• A national book publisher buys exclusive rights to the rescued woman’s story.
• A major studio buys movie rights to the rescued woman’s story.
• A national newspaper offers to pay the rescued woman for an exclusive interview.
• A national supermarket publication bids for and wins exclusive rights to the rescued woman’s story.

All the above involve some type of financial transaction. Are there ethical differences, and if so, what are they? What would you do in each of the above situations? Ask your friends – what they would do? And remember, ethics does not always result in black or white solutions.

Paul R. LaRocque, Ethics Committee member

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