About News

Pay-for-Say: Buying Interviews Is a Bad Idea

Tom Arenberg is an instructor of news media at the University of Alabama.

Paying for information is a much frowned-upon practice in journalism. Fortunately, it rarely happens.

Except, of course, when a media organization pays for a newsworthy photo or video.

Or for breaking news tips from sources (think TMZ paying police officers).

Or to cover a source’s pre-interview expenses.

Or for subject experts to appear regularly on shows.

Or for coaches and athletes to do weekly programs.

Or for event broadcast rights.

The latest incarnation is emerging in the world of sports, where college athletes can now make money from endorsements, appearances and interviews. Last month, websites that cover athletics at the University of Texas and Texas A&M arranged paid interviews with multiple high-profile athletes, including two A&M football players who received $10,000 each from a corporate sponsor.

News organizations have approached some student-athletes at the University of Alabama with proposed pay arrangements. This week, some prominent sports reporters are doing interviews with college athletes, including an Auburn University football player, that are sponsored by a new social media app.

“Checkbook journalism” has been around forever. It may become more common. It’s a new option for college sports media, for whom interview access has become diminished and tightly controlled by universities. For sports or non-sports media, it offers a chance to land unique content in crowded markets characterized by content sameness and to reclaim some relevance at a time when many newsmakers prefer to reach the audience directly through their own digital platforms.

But paying for interviews runs counter to the best practices and ethics of journalism for multiple reasons:

  • The audience may conclude that an interviewee said what the interviewer wanted them to say, or embellished information to justify the money and entice other deals.
  • Having a financial arrangement with a newsmaker is a conflict of interest, especially if the newsmaker is someone who will continue to make news. (Public officials aren’t a concern here because they can’t use their office for personal gain.)
  • To enhance value, some deals might involve exclusivity, which would prevent other media from doing their own and perhaps better job of reporting on a story.

Paid interviews allowed by college athletes’ new right to earn money from their name, image and likeness (NIL) pose special potential problems. Some quasi-journalistic sports sites, such as the two team sites that paid the Texas athletes, might happily give the programs they cover a recruiting tool in the form of annual media deals. (A deal can’t be offered to a specific high school prospect, but coaches can cite recurring deals as evidence that athletes will have NIL income potential if they enroll and negotiate agreements later.) Then comes the question of when a payment amount crosses from fair market value to poorly disguised excessive benefit.

Let’s acknowledge that paying for interviews sometimes may be the only way to bring a newsmaker to a forum for public accountability and to get them to sit and confront hard questions. But for every interviewer who will do that, there’s another who will toss softballs for the sake of protecting the business relationship.

If pay-for-say does become more common, here are two good suggestions. First, disclose all compensation to the audience. Second, remember to write a contract clause that says if the interviewee provably lies, they give the money back.

Tom Arenberg is an instructor of news media at the University of Alabama. He worked for The Birmingham News and the Alabama Media Group for 30 years. He published this commentary originally as a post on his blog, The Arenblog.

About News is a BirminghamWatch feature that publishes commentary by those who teach the craft and think about the values and performance of today’s journalism, a civic flashpoint. BirminghamWatch is a member of the Institute for Nonprofit News whose members generally rely on individual gifts, foundation grants and sponsorships to support their work. It also publishes About News articles on Facebook and Twitter and invites readers to join the conversation about their news in those forums.