Chequebook journalism is the practice of news organisations offering money for access to persons of public interest to gain exclusive rights to broadcast or publish their stories. The practice has evolved particularly in commercial broadcasting and tabloid journalism, where there is often fierce competition for major stories. While not illegal, it raises ethical issues for journalists. Interviewees may be tempted to enhance or distort their stories to increase their news value, while for journalists it may impact on issues of balance, impartiality and objectivity. There is also concern about commercial considerations influencing the news agenda: if a story is in the public interest, it should not be disseminated on the basis of affordability.
Payment for stories is particularly contentious when it involves associates of criminals or witnesses in criminal trials whose participation may interfere with the conduct of a case before the courts. However, the other side of the coin is that, as well as benefiting financially, the interviewee also has greater control over how their story is represented, and other media outlets are discouraged from harassing them.
The Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance’s Code of Ethics takes a pragmatic view: rather than proscribing the practice altogether, it urges journalists to strive for full disclosure. News organisations vary in their approaches: the Sydney Morning Herald’s Code of Practice warns explicitly against offering money for stories, while others focus on the need for full disclosure of any commercial arrangements. Attitudes have changed over the years as pragmatism has impacted on interpretations of ethical principles. Chequebook journalism was explicitly proscribed in the ABC’s editorial policies up to 2009, but there is no reference to it in subsequent revisions. Instead, journalists are encouraged to engage in practices that maintain the ABC’s independence and integrity.
REFs: J. Hurst and S.A. White, Ethics and the Australian News Media (1994); S. Tanner, G. Phillips, C. Smyth and S. Tapsall, Journalism Ethics at Work (2005).