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Editor’s note: On paying sources

It's long been seen as an unethical practice. Perhaps it's time to reconsider

Erica Lenti

Journalism ethics handbooks have, for decades, pedalled the same line of thought: Reporters and their sources should never exchange money. Paying sources is, as John Cook described in a piece on the matter for the Columbia Journalism Review, akin to paying for sex; it’s morally ambiguous, depending on who’s asking. It’s often easier to err on the side of caution, to not muddy the nature of a connection with a source.

When we think of traditional reporter-source relationships, such advice—or, as many old-school journalism reporters, editors, and instructors would argue, such a fact—seems rock solid. Paying someone to talk might incentivize them to lie. It might sully future connections with the media, in which the source may expect compensation for each and every interaction with journalists. It shifts the landscape with other sources: Why might one source be paid for an interview where another might not?

It’s complicated. But, like many practices believed to be set in stone in this industry, it’s time to reconsider.

In my own experience as a magazine editor, I was admittedly stubborn when it came to these so-called rules. I worried others in the industry would view such a disregard for the ways things are as naive or simply foolish. And so, for many years—both at This Magazine and other esteemed publications—I was staunch: We would not allow our reporters to pay sources, nor would we subsidize such payment from our company.

But that viewpoint changed almost entirely when I was approached by a writer earlier this year. Alex Verman was working on a story about transgender violence across Canada, particularly in Toronto, and how many institutions that should have protected the community failed to do so (the final product later became the haunting cover story of our May/June Pride issue). She inquired about renumeration for not one but two sources in the piece. One was a transgender educator, a woman who would be taking time away from potential wages to talk with Alex about an immensely important issue to the community. The other was part of an organization that works with sex workers in Toronto, many of whom are trans.

My initial reaction: Of course not! What would that say about This as a journalistic organization? What might people think of our ethics?

The more I spoke with mentors and other reporters and editors in the industry, however, the more I realized the necessity of flexibility on such matters. Alex wanted to donate a small gift card to a grocery store in the case of the transgender educator; the source’s lost wages in speaking with her could cost her food for the week. With regards to the organization, Alex also wanted to offer a donation—a sign of good faith, that as a reporter she took them seriously and wanted to do more than take their intimate stories and run with them.

As journalists, we often forget that people aren’t expected to give their time, their trauma, their experiences, their most intimate moments. We stand up in droves to ensure no journalist works for free. And yet, when we require the expertise of others, we rely on their free labour. Certainly, for sources like lawyers, academics, doctors, and other professionals, taking that hour or two to chat with a reporter will not put their access to groceries or personal needs at risk. Often, speaking with the media bolsters their profile; to give an interview might be considered mutually beneficial.

But when it comes to grassroots community workers, that free labour, that expected hour or two of chitchat can be the difference between dinner or no dinner, a paid opportunity or getting an important story out to the world. When these sources belong to groups, like the transgender community, who are at-risk, whose work is rarely compensated fairly, this is only amplified.

After long discussions on the matter, the This team and I decided there was little risk to offering donations these community workers—payment would not negatively influence their interview, nor incentivize them to offer false information. The decision felt very much in the spirit of This Magazine, which initially came to fruition to discuss underreported issues in education, and later, among underrepresented communities across Canada.

There is not a hard-and-fast rule to abide by when it comes to these matters, and these decisions continue to be made on a case-by-case basis. It’s time to have more discussions on this—in our newsrooms, our magazine offices, and in classrooms across Canada. What’s important—for editors, writers, and all journalists in this country—is to make considerations and break the rules when they need to be broken.

Erica Lenti is the editor of This Magazine.

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