Jan 12, 2010

Making journalism valuable for ordinary Joes

Ed Wasserman at Washington and Lee University questions whether it's wrong for news outlets to pay sources for stories. He notes a few potential downsides, and then argues that maybe the downsides are overstated. He also points to the (arguable) accuracy of the supermarket tabloids and professional news pundits as examples of payments that seems to work.

He writes:
Certain people are already richly compensated for being sources. 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.

They are rewarded, big time, thanks to the media's power to confer prestige, standing and importance upon them, and thanks to their own power to convert those intangible payments -- since that's what they are -- into hard currency.

When people condemn the evils of paying sources, they're really only talking about a certain class of sources -- not the professional sources who routinely cash in, but the ordinary Joe who has stumbled into a moment of celebrity and is suddenly standing on a chilly stage with a klieg light in his face, blinking in disbelief. Without any idea what this exposure might do or how badly he might humiliate himself, he's implored to submit to questions and scrutiny from glamorous strangers, who make unfathomable salaries for doing just that.

Even if we agree that ordinary Joes deserve compensation, the idea is completely unworkable. Is the local reporter supposed to head out to the fire or murder scene with a wad of cash? Do you pay only regular citizens or government officials as well? What about people accused of doing something wrong - do you compensate them only until they're proven guilty? Do you pay if a story is never published or aired? Should the fee be figured based on expected ratings or hit counts?

The true benefit conferred to average Joes will come if journalists spend their time working on stories that aid them by educating them, or pointing out injustices, or removing red tape or unnecessary barriers, or ensuring the corrupt are held accountable. That kind of compensation is harder to calculate, but it's a better value for everyone involved.

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