The Globe and Mail did something that I think has not happened before, and that was to pay a source $10,000 for a series of photographs showing Toronto Mayor Rob Ford smoking what was described by a drug dealer as crack cocaine. The payment was to an admitted drug dealer.
So the question in the world of journalism is, Was that right? Is paying for such material ever justified or does it fall within the maligned term of chequebook journalism?
I asked readers on Twitter and noted the comments on editor-in-chief David Walmsley’s note to readers in the paper and online. Here is briefly what he said: “The Globe was offered the opportunity to buy still images from these videos by an admitted drug dealer. This is not our normal practice. But in this instance, The Globe felt it was a matter of public interest, and that readers needed to see what our reporters watched and reported on. We paid $10,000 for a series of photographs. Toronto is the financial capital of this G8 country and the sixth-biggest government in Canada. Paralysis in Toronto is bad for the country. The mayor is supposed to be the guardian of his city. The photographs we published are a price worth paying.”
Out of about 250 comments on the story, remarks on Twitter and to publiceditor@globeandmail, the vast majority agreed with the decision in this particular case and only a handful outright said it was wrong. (A number dismissed the argument, but more on that later.)
Here’s the top-rated comment on the article: “You are fully justified in paying for these photos. Finally, a Canadian news op showing some courage and defending the public interest.”
And here are a few more:
“Don’t apologize. Just publish. He is a public figure.”
“There are times that paying [for] information by a news media is justified. This is most certainly one of them.”
“I support. Forced him into action.”
“Why do you even have to defend yourself? It’s very important news and you’re a news organization doing its job.”
“I couldn’t agree more with the purchase of these photos. You are doing what a media channel is supposed to do, dig [for] information and make it available to the public. By doing this you are looking into the public best interest …”
A few readers had no problem with the payment, but were irritated at the argument that this was done in the public interest. “Baloney! You just want to sell newspapers,” said one. Here was the response from another reader: “You know, it’s possible for a paper to want to sell papers AND perform a valuable public service by pointing out the egregious actions of our leaders.”
Those who opposed the action were offended by the notion of paying a drug dealer. “Paying large sums to drug dealers for photos is really just courting sensationalism,” one said. And another said: “The Globe should be ashamed of itself. It could have reported on the story without enriching a drug dealer.”
So what exactly is chequebook journalism and is it ever justified?
Two years ago, film critic Liam Lacey wrote about a film company asking journalists to pay about $3,200 for an interview with an actor promoting his film.
In 2011, there was a controversy about U.S. TV networks paying for interviews, including ABC paying six figures for home movies of kidnap and rape victim Jaycee Dugard.
This practice is more common in Britain and the rest of Europe and also in U.S. television. But as you can see from the few examples above, these cases are so varied that, in my view, there cannot be a blanket ban or a blanket acceptance.
It is worth noting that The Globe and Mail’s Code of Conduct does not mention paying for sources or photos. Paying for freelance photos is common practice, although it does not explain these Rob Ford photos, which fall more in the line of paying for information than paying for a photograph.
It does come down to public interest. Paying for home movies in the Jaycee Dugard case or paying a studio to help an actor promote a movie might be interesting, but they are not in the public interest. There is, without a doubt, a higher duty to inform the public about its elected officials.
There has also been a very real concern about paying for information because it can encourage sources to make things up or wildly embellish just to make a buck. In those cases, it might prove challenging to verify that information, and journalists quite rightly have been reluctant to deal with such cases.
But what’s happening today is that there is so much citizen video and other video out there that readers and viewers want to see it for themselves and make up their own mind. I had a call today from a reader who asked why The Globe didn’t just purchase the video and he accused the paper of making it up, saying the video didn’t exist. I explained to him that two reporters saw the video, reported on it and The Globe purchased still photos from that actual video. I also urged him to read the article to the end to understand the verification process involved.
Part of the argument for paying for the still photographs was that previously, when gawker.com and The Toronto Star published articles about another video that shows the mayor smoking what is alleged to be crack cocaine, there was disbelief, as with the reader above.
But unlike paying a source for a personal story, which may or may not be true, you can see the video or photos yourself. It is hard evidence that still needs as much verification as it can in terms of reporting, but is a tangible thing that the reader can judge.
Paying for information must remain the rarest of decisions. The bar must be for news of great public interest. It must be the only way to fully tell the story. And in every case, the news organization must explain to readers how much it has paid, to whom and why. If there is any squeamishness about being so upfront, it is a sign that the money should not be paid.
The readers deserve full transparency on these decisions and they will make up their minds as to whether this highly unusual step was justified.