Why journalists do not pay for news tips

Friday October 18 2019

 

By Odoobo C. Bichachi

Some people that have witnessed fraud or whatever kind of mischief in various places will often walk into a media house (or call/send an email) to share the information so that reporters/editors can take it up and perhaps generate a news story.

However, to the disappointment of some of them, after the reporter or editor has listened to their narration and taken notes, all they get is a handshake and a pat on the back as they are escorted out of the office with a promise to follow up the tip. No money at all!
Why shouldn’t a media house that is going to print the story on its cover page the next morning and sell thousands of copies not pay a little token to the source of the story, they wonder! The same question has been asked by some “experts” usually interviewed by media on key areas/subjects in the news. Why shouldn’t journalists pay them for picking their brains?

Well, it is true that without ordinary citizens volunteering information they witnessed or learned about, it would be doubly hard for journalists to write some category of stories, especially investigative ones. In the same vein, many articles would also be flat and less educative if they were devoid of analysis and expert opinion.

So in many ways, one could say we [media] are because you are! News sources – of whatever nature – and experts are the reason media houses are able to produce robust news and features articles, enabling media to play its cardinal role of being a watchdog and facilitating public debate, inter alia.

That said, there are several reasons why journalists do not pay news sources for the information they receive. First, journalism evolved as a community service facilitating the sharing of information among a given area and people with very minimal commercial elements attached to it save the cost of producing the newspaper and sustaining it.

In many European countries like Sweden and Denmark, newspapers are still owned by communities or foundations in different towns. So information was not for sale, it was for community benefit. The models have changed over the years, but the functions of the press have remained the same.

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Be that as it may, the main reason journalists do not pay for information is to protect the integrity of what will eventually be published. Nation Media Group Editorial Policy Guidelines have a specific provision on this matter and I quote it directly below:
“Paying for news and articles
When money is paid for information, serious questions can be raised about the credibility of that information and the motives of the buyer and seller. Therefore, in principle, journalists should avoid paying for information.”

From the above, it is clear that when many learn that journalists will pay them for news tips, we could descend into a situation where unscrupulous people will forge information and try to sell it to media houses. This would bring into question the credibility of news and increase the costs of gate-keeping as well as the risk of fake stories finding their way in the newspaper or on television platforms.
Yes, there are instances when a media house will spend money to facilitate the acquisition of certain information. That, however, is clearly not meant as payment for news, it is “facilitation” and is done on a case by case basis.

Since stories emanating from paid for information cannot be reliable as the motives of the “seller” may not be above board, it follows conversely that information journalists are paid to publish cannot be relied upon as its impartiality is equally compromised. It is, therefore, in the same vein that media houses have strict rules about gifts and brown envelopes. The NMG policy stipulates the following on this matter:

“Conflict of interest and unfair advantage
The Nation Media Group practices a policy of zero-tolerance to corrupt practices. In this regard, its journalists and editors must be free of obligation to any interest other than the public’s right to know the truth. Gifts, bribes, brown envelopes, favours, free travel, free meals or drinks, special treatment or privileges can compromise the integrity of journalists, editors and their employers. Journalists, editors and their employers should conduct themselves in a manner that protects them from conflicts of interest, real or apparent. It is important not only to avoid conflicts of interest but also the appearances of such conflicts. In this connection, all situations capable of creating undue familiarity will be avoided or handled cautiously.”

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