Just a decade ago, only the most notorious tabloids paid money to sources to get sensational news. Today, it has become quite common for journalists to pay for exclusivity. Checkbook journalism is one of the major trends in contemporary mass media, but not everyone believes that it is ethically acceptable.
As a consumer, I do not have any particular view on the problem of checkbook journalism. On the one hand, it is human nature that we are interested in seeing unusual things and witnessing exclusive events on television and via other media. Moreover, we feel special when we are the first to learn about a sensation. I believe that, to a large extent, television companies pay to sources for exclusive news because they want to satisfy their viewers’ craving for something extraordinarily new. It is we, customers, who stand at the roots of checkbook journalism, because our satisfaction impacts television companies’ ratings and, eventually, their profits. Checkbook journalism grows out of the context in which customers play the central role, and it comes as no surprise that television companies are willing to use all possible methods to satisfy customers’ desire for sensations. On the other hand, I often feel awkward when seeing the things I do not want to see. At times, journalists cross the boundaries of ethics and pay for the news that should not be made public. Not everyone is interested in seeing Elvis Presley in the coffin or watching naked Kate Middleton when she is spending a vacation with her husband. I believe in exclusivity only within ethical boundaries. I also understand that, at times, checkbook journalism is the only way to meet our growing demand for information.
From a business point of view, checkbook journalism is entirely justified. The mass media industry has become extremely competitive, and it is due to heightened competition that companies are willing to pay for information and produce breathtaking stories. However, the question is whether it makes sense for a multi-platform entity such as NBC News to get exclusive information in as many ways as possible. Apparently, it does, because even the size and presence of more than one mass media platform does not secure the company from the pressures of heightened competition. Here, questions of reliability and independence give place to business and profitability considerations. Even for large companies such as NBC, checkbook journalism can be the only possible way to survive. Markets have become extremely dynamic, and NBC can no longer rely solely on their historically untainted public image. Sensational news will predetermine the fate of the future mass media conglomerates, making professional organizations more concerned about the future of the journalistic profession.
The Society of Professional Journalists is concerned about the future of television companies. The SPJ argues that checkbook journalism is unethical since it undermines the very nature of the journalistic profession, which should be based on independence and objectivity. However, SPJ also forgets that independence is no longer a distinctive feature of journalism. Journalists have sacrificed their independence for the sake of profits. They no longer seek to create an objective picture of the world. They prefer producing their stories in ways that satisfy customers’ search for exclusivity. Modern companies fail to balance the demand for independence and privacy with the demand for competitiveness. Recent experiences suggest that independent journalists often lack even the basic means for professional development and competitive growth. Certainly, checkbook journalism is just a form of a contractual relationship, and any such contract implies that the journalist automatically accepts the position of his/her source. Yet, it seems that consumers are not interested in the ethical side of the story. Therefore, the SPJ should reconsider its historical position and provide some room for ethical flexibility that reflects the changing conditions of performance in the mass media field.