After David Goldman Flight, Edward Wasserman Argues Upside of Paying Sources

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Photo from an NBC exclusive. David Goldman and son are shown on a private jet that NBC News hired to bring embattled father and son home from Brazil.

iMediaEthics recently wrote about NBC offering a free flight to David Goldman and his son Sean after a long custody battle in Brazil last December.

NBC defended themselves, saying the flight wasn’t payment for subsequent exclusive interviews with Goldman. But the Society of Professional Journalists argued the move still compromised the network.

Now another ethics expert has weighed in. Edward Wasserman, the Knight Professor of Journalism Ethics at Washington and Lee University argues in a Miami Herald article, that maybe paying sources isn’t all that bad.

More specifically, he writes, “the criticism of payments as harmful to the public — because they would yield less and worse information — is based on questionable notions of how people would actually behave.” To conclude that paying sources is a bad move, he writes, we have to assume that sources have bad intentions. But maybe they don’t.

Maybe payments can “induce disclosures from people who see no reason to come forward,” he writes. Or “maybe the source would be keen to deliver truthful information if money were at stake. And the reporter, having paid up, would be secure in asking the provocative questions she might hold back if the source felt free to rip off the microphone and stalk off the set.”

Wasserman also argues some sources are already “paid” for their contribution. “Some even get paychecks, such as the new caste of on-air ‘news consultants.’ But for many, many other members of the political, managerial and professional elite whose words and deeds constitute the overwhelming bulk of what we call news, getting called and quoted and covered is a boon to their working lives and a material factor in their career success” he writes, raising the question, Why should we assume cash payment to these sources reduces the quality of news any more than prestige “payment” to other kinds of “sources” does?

But at the same time, Wasserman has missed a second, and important, aspect of the SPJ’s critique of NBC’s move to bring Goldman on their plane for free. It’s not just that paying a source might compromise the source.  Paying a source can also affect the news organization doing the paying. As SPJ wrote in their statement, “By making itself part of a breaking news story on which it was reporting… the network branded the story as its own, creating a corporate and promotional interest in the way the story unfolds. NBC’s ability to report the story fairly has been compromised by its financial involvement.”

Regardless of whether the quality and reliability of Goldman’s story is diminished (as Wasserman argues, it could in some circumstances be enhanced) NBC may have changed the story itself by becoming a financial player. “The news media’s duty is to report news, not help create it. The race to be first should not involve buying — directly or indirectly — interviews, an unseemly practice that raises questions of neutrality, integrity and credibility,” SPJ writes.

So the question is raised, if Wasserman is right that news gathering involves a broader sense of “payment” to a broader range of “sources,” have these relationships already been putting news organizations at risk of “creating” news rather than reporting it, the way SPJ describes?

In an email to iMediaEthics, Wasserman responds,

It’s a fair point. But does branding a story as “theirs” (something any competitive news outfit longs to do, if the story is an interesting one) necessarily mean tilting their coverage in a way that harms the quality of the reporting the public gets? If you think about the Frost-Nixon interviews, for which the ex-president was paid a boatload of money, the payments seem, if anything, to have sharpened Frost’s determination to interview Nixon aggressively and to keep him from evading tough questions.

He argues we can say for sure that payments complicate the situations that are already ethically fraught for journalists. But, he says, it’s hard to know if this impact will necessarily have negative rather than positive results. “Payments complicate the issue, but not in predictable ways and not necessarily in harmful ways,” he writes.


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After David Goldman Flight, Edward Wasserman Argues Upside of Paying Sources

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