Chequebook journalism and covering the trapped miners -

Chequebook journalism and covering the trapped miners


I’ve spent quite a bit of time in Chile these past couple of months, covering the trapped and now freed miners. The results are here, here, and here.

After the miners were freed, many journalists offered them a lot of money for interviews. Outlets engaging in this practice included some of the most recognized media institutions in the world. Maclean’s did not pay a cent.

I think this was the right decision. In general I don’t like the practice of paying interview subjects, and if a journalist does so, I think he or she has an obligation to make that clear in the resulting reportage. I would genuinely appreciate readers’ thoughts on this.


Chequebook journalism and covering the trapped miners

  1. I could see it being ok in some situations where the interviewee is incurring hardship, but that doesn't seem to be the case here.

    • Well, there's no hardship if you set aside the being a Chilean miner, or involved with one, and one who was recently trapped underground, part of the story, I guess.

      • Sorry, I meant hardship directly relating to the interview, not the situation.

  2. They don't have to talk to the media at all, so if the media wants a story….

    It's a capitalist society, and information is worth money.

  3. I don't understand why Canadian msm has taken itself out of the news gathering business but it has. And one of the ways it has done this is to not pay for info.

    What is the reasoning behind paying Petrou, and probably a couple of people to to take photos or grease the wheels in foreign countries, while refusing to pay the people who's story it is? Apparently money corrupts people with stories to tell but does not effect those who are listening.

    Why should Petrou, or anyone else for that matter, benefit from free info while being paid themselves? And what is about money that msm finds so distasteful because I am certain reporters don't work for free.

    • Nothing you wrote here makes any sense. Reporters don't work for free because it's there job to write stories. 'News gathering' doesn't mean paying pseudo-celebs for interviews.

      • "News gathering' doesn't mean paying pseudo-celebs for interviews."

        Petrou was writing about Chilean miners. Petrou gets a salary to write about them, Macleans charges subscription or cover price, while Chilean miners are supposed to give their stories away for nothing. Seems like msm wants to reduce their costs while benefiting from free info and to make themselves feel better about exploiting people and their misery/joy/grief they squawk about journo ethics.

  4. Michael – where do you draw the line? Is buying a source dinner "paying" them?

    • It's a good question. I do often buy an interview subject a meal while interviewing them. I've also paid locals as guides, which functioned as a form of protection, in particularly violent urban slums, or in conflict-ridden parts of Africa.

      For that matter, I've given money to a starving woman I had interviewed, and, come to think of it, I gave away food, a bit of money, and a tent in Haiti after the earthquake. But anything I've ever given to an interview subject has come after interviews were complete and without any promises being made in advance — and only when the interview subjects were genuinely desperate. In the case of the guy I gave money to after the quake, I don't think I even interviewed him. He hadn't eaten in a few days. I bought him lunch and gave him $20.

      I think the key is that interviews be given freely and not bought. If, after completing an interview with a single mother who lives in a shack with five kids in a gang-run slum, I give her a few dollars, I don't think I'm compromising either of us. But there are all kinds of grey areas, and I've trudged through many of them. I'm not writing this to trumpet my moral virtue. I genuinely want readers' input.

      • Update and full disclosure: When I wrote my earlier post, I forgot that once, almost ten years ago, I paid an Afghan drug runner for an interview. I’ve always considered this an ethical lapse and regret it.

  5. Balloon boy -'nuff said.

  6. Interesting ethical issue. I would make two "piles": one for interviews related to the welfare of the public, and another related to "human interest".

    For "welfare of the public" stories, no payment.

    For "human interest" stories, payment should be considered. After all, the goal of the interview in those cases is to attract viewers and/or readers with something that is topical and interesting (as opposed to newsworthy). It's more or less entertainment. And if someone is going to provide entertainment, they probably should be compensated for it.

    Look at it this way: why would a formerly trapped Chilean miner accept to reveal the details of his anguish to a Canadian publication ? All it will do is satisfy the curiosity of Canadian readers about what it was like to be trapped underground and (possibly) have an impact on the circulation of the publication. So everyone gets something except the guy who provided the story. That doesn't seem right to me.

  7. What restrictions do journalists put on interview subjects speaking to others if they do pay them for their stories? If there aren't any, I can't see the harm. Do any publications pay for quotes from unnamed Liberals? Because that would be a sweet racket.

    • Unnamed Liberals give their quotes away for free.

  8. I imagine some form of consideration is often given to the interviewee. Sometimes (for a politician) simply having some issues off the agenda can be a valuable consideration. An opportunity to review the end product prior to publication is always valuable. Money is just an alternate form of consideration. It would be a great idea if any of the above that are relevant were quickly disclosed at the start of an article.

  9. It's a good question Petrou asks. It's an old question for journalism, but one that has been given new life in part because of Gawker media's unabashedness about engaging in chequebook journalism. Nick Denton has made it clear he has no problem with it, and it will be interesting to see the extent to which "mainstream" media will follow along. If so, it's yet another way in which Denton is setting the terms of engagememt for all media now.

  10. On the one hand, much of Information gathering has been converted into an entertainment commodity in modern media so why would anyone tell their personal story unless they are getting something out of it? On the other hand, I think there are good reasons not to pay, mainly because the result is so suspect.

    I guess the difference is whether you consider what you do informing vs. entertaining the reader.

  11. Most business reporters/pundits are disclosing their holdings or interest in companies, even if it doesn't have immediate relevance to the story or if anyone was paid for an interview or not. Maybe that isn't quite the same as the question here. Paying a biker to find out about Hell's Angels may be worth it, but it also would be good to know if he was paid (and why). Whether readers pay much heed in that fact is another matter.

  12. When journalists receive free transportation, lodging, meals?—drinks—never( not at $1.95 a vote) during an election…is that a form of payment for favourable reporting ?

  13. If "human interest" stories were no longer free, would it provide enough economic incentive for media bosses to turn their resources towards the free stuff i.e. news of importance to the general public ?

  14. As soon as the miners were rescued they became irrelevant.

    I frankly couldn't care less about how they felt trapped underground and how they managed to keep their spirits up (and what was discussed in order to make the maximum amount of cash out of it).

    I understand that people love to read and find out about other's states of mind but I simply don't care. It must have been hard and long, what else is there to say?

  15. I don't see a problem with paying for interviews. I also think that most interviews where payment is requested are interviews of little interest.

    Most people don't want compensation for their stories, most people want their stories to be heard. When people want their stories to be heard, they will be given away for no cash (the return payment is not cash, but the media exposure itself). Then there are those stories where the subjects don't want the information to get out, so there is no issue there.

    So if someone is requesting payment, I don't see a reason why not, but I'd also say that in most cases it's better to walk away, you don't need or want the story anyway.

    The miners are a good example. The story is really already over. The miners had an incentive for media exposure when they were underground, and at that time payment was not required. Now that they have no real need for media exposure (hence their requests for payment) there really is no compelling story to get out. But suppose one miner had a real story to tell, a story about a corruption or safety scandal that might have caused the mine collapse in the first place – would he be requesting payment for it? No. He would want the exposure to be far and wide, and the best way to do that is to give it away.

  16. The basic issue here is incentive to get people to be interviewed. As with most things economic, it's about supply and demand. In the overwhelming number of cases, there is an abundant supply of people who want to be interviewed by the media. They will not only do it for free, they'll bend over backwards to get in print or on camera. However, in some small cases, the supply is small, and the demand is big. In other words, a small group of people of interest are in large demand to be seen by the public and, as a result, be interviewed by the media. These are the people who can demand a fee.

    Personally, I think you're getting into some potential trouble by basically staging paid events. The medium loses credibility and, perhaps most importantly, the audience eventually goes somewhere else. And if the latter happens, then you lose money in the long term — both in terms of subscribers and viewers, and in terms of advertisers who will pay less for a dwindling audience.

    In other words, paying for interviewees might be a short-term gain that contributes to a long-term loss.

    • I think I need to add something here.

      I suppose, in the end, it's about the content, and how the audience reacts to that content.

      Now, if you can pay someone for an interview without it affecting the interview, then maybe it's OK. If a media outlet can profit from a story, why can't that person who the story's about profit from it, too, I guess?

      This might be a bit different from what I was talking about, which is when someone is basically paid off — a paid message. Paying someone to appear is not necessarily an example of that.

      Again, I think it's all about the quality of the content. That is what will ultimately determine the size of an audience over the long-term. If the content is not jeopardized by the payment, then maybe it's OK. I'm obviously still reflecting on what is a very interesting and important journalistic question.

  17. Thank you for asking, Michael. Here is my take:

    You refund reasonable expenses for the flight or the cab fare for the subject to get to you, or, better, you move your own tail there to minimize any inconvenience on the part of the interviewee. I would even go so far as to send them a pre-paid phone card if your telephone interview was burning through their cellphone minutes. Anything like that need not be disclosed to the consumer of your product. And if a reporter mentions "So-and-so discussed over lunch his experience with etc." I am already presuming your news outfit coughed up for the guy's soup.

    Paying subjects to get the "exclusive scoop" is a disgusting practice; not disclosing that ugliness is further evidence that the guilty reporter bloody well understands s/he is guilty; and the failure to fully inform the public of this relevant detail manages to lower the reporter (and the media outlet) one more rung on the journalistic misconduct ladder.

    Offering a "reward" for conclusive evidence in favour of whatever position needs the credibility boost is probably more opinionating and less reporting. It probably has its purpose (EITHER to dig out something that needs the disinfecting sunshine OR to make the point that whatever conventional wisdom of interest has no supporting evidence whatsoever), but it rapidly takes on the flavour of a publicity stunt.

    There is a corollary that could also elicit discussion: What about when the subject pays the reporter? And no, it need not be cash. Think about those junkets for everybody-line-up-here-for-your-two-and-a-half-minute-EXCLUSIVE-celebrity-interview to promote a new movie about to be released, for a new car to be test-driven, for a golly-gee-we're-really-nice-people conference in Tehran. Business class of course, and only the finest hotels for our valued guests…