May 5, 2014

We start a new week with a sobering journalistic reality. Last week, two newsrooms paid sources for exclusive content that broke big stories, and those who would not or did not pay were left quoting those who did.

A year ago, Canadian journalists said they had seen video of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford smoking crack but they didn’t buy the video and, despite Ford’s bizarre behavior, no images equaled no proof.  So when a new video emerged showing the mayor holding a crack pipe, The Globe and Mail forked over $10,000 to an admitted drug dealer for still frames from the video.

TMZ will not say if it paid for audio of NBA team owner Donald Sterling’s ranting about his associate/girlfriend’s posting photos of herself and black men on social media, but Deadspin said it paid for another version of the audio tape.

Shocking photos and audio have a real street value, and now we know the going price. The price you pay for the photos may be linked to the cost of the steady, slow decline of journalism credibility. Audiences say they believe less of what journalists report. So to get the public to believe us, must we amp up the evidence, even if it means paying a drug dealer for a set up photo?

A 100 years ago, journalists found themselves in a similar situation. Following the press wars between Pulitzer and Hearst and the birth of what we would now call public relations, journalists attempted to rebuild credibility by establishing new standards.

The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics does not forbid paying a source for photos, video or audio. The SPJ code says, “Be wary of sources offering information for favors or money; avoid bidding for news.” TMZ says it pays for such things just as other newsrooms pay stringers.

The Globe’s reporter Robyn Doolittle says the “drug dealers” were asking for six-figures, or $100,000 for rights to the video. They accepted $10,000 for still frames from the video.

The Globe’s Editor-in-Chief David Walmsley explained on the paper’s website that he felt the paper had to obtain the photos that it snagged from the video because, “We had a public duty to properly scrutinize the mayor’s behavior and we felt it was important that we highlight, with the evidence, the example of the story that we then ran today.”

If The Globe had reason to believe that it had evidence of Mayor Ford committing a crime, shouldn’t the paper have turned the evidence over to police? Walmsley said no. He said journalists should not “be agents of the police.”

Gawker says a source offered the Ford video to them, too. Gawker countered with a deal. It would pay the source based on the popularity of the video. The more online traffic the photos generated, the more they would pay. Think about the incentive that such deals would give to a source to capture the most salacious images possible.

The ethics of paying sources

The problem with paying sources in this case is that The Globe may be rewarding criminals for performing a criminal act. It is not unusual for a newsroom to ethically pay a stringer, as an example, for significant photos that tell great truths or provide insight. It can be ethical to pay a large sum for such images or video. But when the supplier may also be involved in the criminal act that is at the center of the scandal, the decision becomes messier.

Poynter Senior Scholar Roy Peter Clark told me “In general, I say no” to paying for information, photos or video. “But I think of my position as a standard not an absolute.” Clark said, “It can be defensible to pay for photos if there is no other way to prove a story to be true. Ask if the story reaches a point of significant impact on the public’s well-being.”

By that standard, The Globe and Mail has a reasonable defense.

Poynter Senior Faculty for Ethics Kelly McBride said money “can have a distorting effect” on truth-telling. “When you offer a monetary incentive to a source, the source may try to give you what you want; they change reality to make what they are offering more valuable.”

But even unpaid sources can have selfish motives for providing distorted information, including revenge, self-aggrandizement and to promote a cause.

Other professions that depend on “sources” gladly pay for useful information. Police pay for information when the source can provide leads that end in convictions. Lawyers hire expert witnesses to provide useful testimony. But in both circumstances, the paid informant can expect to come under suspicion.

Weighing the options

The Globe found an alternative to paying $100,000 to drug dealers who say they supplied drugs to Mayor Ford, and the evidence was plenty to tell the story that needed to be told.

The Globe did the right thing by boldly and clearly starting how it obtained the photos.

The key difference between paying for the audio of Donald Sterling and the photos of Ford can be found in the gravity of the two events that were documented. One is a high-profile, private businessman whose business touches lots of people, but whose conversation was neither illegal nor public. The case against Sterling’s attitudes about race is demonstrated in court documents and lawsuits. The audio provided a new multimedia frame for an old story.

The stakes in the Ford case were significantly higher. Ford represents Canada’s biggest city, can influence government spending and affect the lives of every citizen. There was no other way to prove the case in the way the photos can.

What’s next?

Imagine the nightmare that awaits you if every story begins with negotiations with sources over how much you will pay for today’s interview. What if the source of your information could count on being rewarded based on how many page views their information produced on your website? Or would you argue that if we would just loosen up our ethical playbook, information that you can’t pry out of your sources, useful — even vital — information that would reveal rich stories would flow like Niagara Falls and we could be better off for it?

Poynter’s Roy Peter Clark says journalists may have sent a signal to all out there that their recordings can pay off handsomely. “Here is the bigger issue,” Clark says, “you are establishing a precedent that could create incentives for entrapment of public figures. Imagine somebody saying, ‘So now I know how much a newsroom will pay for a photo that will take down a mayor. What’s the price for a prime minister?”’

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