Chequebook journalism (or checkbook journalism in American English) is the form of journalism where the essential characteristic is that the journalist pays the subject of the work money for the right to publish their story.
The phrase "chequebook journalism" is often used derogatorily—the suggestion being that stories obtained by throwing money at people are not as worthy as those obtained by traditional investigative methods. Chequebook journalism is a symptom of the fiercely competitive commercial television industry in Australia (notably the current affairs programs), while in the UK, due to its geographic layout being conductive to the distribution of newspapers there, the print media thrives on it. It degrades the quality of the story that is for sale, by concentrating only on the "salacious, emotional and sensational" while leaving out parts of the truth that are more "awkward", to suit the tastes of the audience. Such stories are untested for their accuracy by independent journalists.
In the UK at least, chequebook methods are employed most often by tabloid newspapers—with the News of the World on the receiving end of the bulk of the criticism.
It is an inherently problematic way to get a story from a subject. Since subjects can expect to be paid higher for a more sensationalist story, it gives the subject motivation to exaggerate and misrepresent their story.
The rescue of the miners in the Beaconsfield mine collapse has renewed public awareness of chequebook journalism, as the TV networks and their stakeholders bid for the exclusive rights to the story as told by miners Todd Russell and Brant Webb, who were trapped underground for 2 weeks.
However, in defence of this practice, it is argued that the people involved in the story deserve compensation for their ordeal.
Examples of cases involving chequebook journalism include:
It is important to define 'cheque-book journalism'. The practice of 'buying someone a drink' or covering 'out-of-pocket' expenses is a conventional way of obtaining stories, whether payments are by cash or cheque and whether or not they are covered by receipts.
Professional people (doctors, lawyers, scientists, and even politicians) expect to be paid a fee for use of their time or expertise in the development of a story. Freelance journalists and professional publicists make their living quite legitimately from selling stories.
However there is a growing trend within public relations for specialist information to be made available for payment. This is regarded by journalists as an abuse of power and a hindrance to press freedom.
It is the exclusive purchase of information from key players in a story which is usually the focus of most criticism.
Purchasing exclusive serialisation rights to a book may be a legitimate business transaction, but special problems have arisen (eg. in the case of Sonja Sutcliffe, Darius Guppy and Nick Leeson) when the author has a criminal record or is an associate or relative of a convicted criminal.
Paying witnesses in court cases, or criminals, suspects and their associates, is regarded as the most offensive form of cheque-book journalism.
Even paying victims of crime or catastrophes, or their relatives, to obtain an 'exclusive' may be considered distasteful. Following the Hillsborough tragedy in 1989 many relatives of the dead and injured were offered money to tell their stories. This practice could be regarded as an unwarranted intrusion into grief.
4. Why are the payments made?
Newspaper editors or programme producers are willing to 'invest' often large sums of money to obtain the rights to a person's version of events because they believe it will increase their circulation/ratings.
These are primarily commercial rather than journalistic decisions. The main reason for doing so is to prevent other papers or broadcasters from obtaining access to information that may be in the public interest or, more usually, simply judged to be of interest to the public. There is a difference.
Although some will argue that this competitive approach to news-gathering is appropriate in the free market, it is worth stressing that the freedom of the press should not be 'a licence to print money'.