The term “checkbook journalism” describes situations in which reporters or news outlets pay for stories by providing financial compensation or assistance such as free flights in private aircraft or favors with government agencies. The practice of paying for news in various ways is not new, although periodically a flurry of high profile cases sparks debate about the practice; a 1962 feature in Time, for example, discussed checkbook journalism in the British press as a well established fact of reporting.
The simplest form of checkbook journalism occurs when a journalist or paper pays directly for an exclusive, in which someone accepts financial compensation in exchange for giving the paper the exclusive rights to report on the story, reprint images, and display video related to the story. Newspapers have been paying for exclusives for almost as long as they have been around and in highly competitive news markets it is not at all uncommon to find situations win which exclusivity deals have been arranged.
Checkbook journalism can also be more subtle, with reporters and papers paying for access to materials rather than to a specific story, or with papers providing assistance which is contingent on exclusive access. For example, a newspaper might provide people with products and services they would otherwise have difficulty accessing, or attempt to pull strings using its connections to get certain favors granted. Likewise, journalists might do things like paying for lunch, covering bridge and road tolls, and so forth, to compensate people for costs incurred by participating in a story.
Critics of checkbook journalism argue that buying the story compromises journalistic integrity. It is difficult to create fair and balanced reporting when a paper is paying for a story, and expectations of payment can change the way in which people interact with journalists. People who are being paid for exclusives may also withhold information or change the information to cast themselves in a better light. Neutral reporting can be especially challenging when compensation is not made public, as it clearly influences the story.
Others argue that checkbook journalism is an entrenched and natural practice which is unlikely to be abolished in the near future. They suggest that steps could be taken to make it less ethically dubious, such as setting limits on compensation for stories, fully disclosing any remuneration provided by newspapers for stories and access, and developing an ethical standard for handling situations in which people are paid for their stories.