Should media pay for news?

By Ross Howard

By Ross Howard

It had been a good few weeks for journalism. The Toronto police chief confirmed the Toronto Star was right. Reporters don’t make things up: a video of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford smoking crack does exist. In the same week, much of the coverage and public conversation about profligate senators Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin moved from calling them ex-journalists to simply identifying them as senators or as ex- media personalities. It seemed to be an acknowledgement that journalism demands exceptional integrity of its practitioners, and when Duffy and Wallin stopped being journalists years ago to take political patronage, they reverted to being just ordinary corruptible people, or politicians.

But then the Star paid $5,000 to get and post the second Ford video, the one in which the controversial mayor seems to go berserk about someone he wants to kill.

The Star’s move took the shine off journalism again and its protestations of innocence didn’t help.

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There is a twentieth century tradition in Canadian journalism that news media don’t pay for news. It is not an absolute rule. There are few absolutes, except perhaps accuracy and verification, but there are clear reasons why paying for news is rarely considered ethical. The public’s absolute need to know has to be weighed against the downsides. On occasion in Canada, and almost daily in the corrupted U.K. tabloids, the pursuit of sensationalism, exclusivity, ratings and media owners’ personal agendas has driven chequebook journalism. But it is rare in Canada. 

Chequebook journalism encourages people to concoct, pursue or peddle information or allegations just to make a buck off gullible media outlets. It encourages the public to think reporters pay people to make up sensational stories. It implies that the truth is a negotiable commodity. 

The Star’s editor-in-chief Michael Cooke argued the $5,000 payment was consistent with the way the Star and other media occasionally pay citizen photographers for their exclusive pictures. He said the money went to a good family with no criminal connections, and the Star decided to grab the video before it disappeared like the crack-smoking video nearly did. And Cooke insisted the new video of the mayor going berserk was of great public importance.

This is the same editor who looked more virtuous only a few months ago when the Star refused to pay for the infamous crack-smoking video when sources first offered it, although CBC’s fifth estate report last week suggests the Star may have been more deterred by the video peddler’s $200,000-plus price than by traditional ethics. We also learned that the Toronto Sun, a more Ford-sympathetic paper, was offered but did not try to buy the latest video. 

The issue of Mayor Ford is so big that to pose the question “Why did you pay for it?’…I don’t understand it,” Cooke told

What Cooke and others should understand is that not paying for news helps sustain the media’s status in society as an independent place any citizen can go with important information relevant to public safety or social welfare or bureaucratic competence. The media act as a public watchdog, a guardian somewhat like the police, although totally separate. Nobody calls the police to report a next-door burglary in hopes of getting $5,000. They call because it is the right thing to do. Ideally, citizens should turn to the media with evidence of corruption or officials’ incompetence because it is wrong, and the media provide a reliable place to expose it, rather than just because it pays $5,000. 

As Nick Russell once wrote in his Canadian journalism text Morals and the Media, chequebooks make for lazy manipulated journalism.

Ross Howard is a journalism ethics professor at Langara College in Vancouver.