Module JG050

Checkbook Journalism

Module author

Susan Stos

formerly: University of Johannesburg
South Africa

Learning objectives After studying this module, you will be able to:
  • Define checkbook journalism;
  • Explain why checkbook journalism is ethically problematic and should be avoided;
  • Give an overview of the genre, including key persons who broad this topic on the agenda;
  • Reflect ethical journalism critically.
Study point 1
Reading extract Checkbook Journalism


Why Open School of Journalism believes that Checkbook Journalism is important zu know

In today's world, individuals who are pursuing a career in journalism need to attain a broad understanding of the different subsets that exist within the industry. Although many exist, learning about checkbook journalism can be particularly efficacious in helping you gain a broader understanding of this dynamic field. To learn more about what checkbook journalism is and how it relates to the general field of journalism, please read the outline that appears below:

Checkbook journalism: A brief overview 

Although defined broadly, checkbook journalism is basically a type of journalism in which a paper or other form of media publication pays an individual to obtain the rights to publish a story. Typically, the term "checkbook journalism" is used in a pejorative fashion. More specifically, the phrase is generally used to emphasize the fact that stories which are acquired and published when a journalist pays for them are less legitimate and accurate than those produced by the conventional forms of investigation. To gain a more concrete understanding of this principle, one can think of the News of the World, an organization that became known for these types of practices. In addition to buying publication rights from witnesses in criminal trials like the Moors murders case, this organization purchased rights from the Gary Glitter trial of 1999. Right before the paper closed in 2011, it was revealed that the paper had also bribed officers of the law to obtain information for several news stories about actor Denholm Elliott's daughter, Jennifer Elliott. 

Checkbook journalism: Getting an international understanding

Individuals who are planning to work within the journalism sector should understand that attaining an international perspective can enable them to function more effectively in this field. This is particularly important in a contemporary world where globalism, information technology, and the internet mean that people from around the world are connecting and doing business with one another. With that idea in mind, let's examine some of the ways checkbook journalism is viewed in places like Australia and North America:

In Australia, checkbook journalism is typically considered to be a problem produced by the commercialized television industry, particularly programs that are predicated on disseminating current affairs information. The UK is known for utilizing the print media extensively as a result of its geographical makeup being so conducive to the dissemination of national newspapers. 

In North America, the act of offering money for journalistic information is not illegal. However, it is typically frowned upon. Nevertheless, there are a plethora of major media outlets in America that will frequently try to surpass conventional standards and opinions regarding checkbook journalism by offering licensing fees to obtain rights to things like home footage videos or photos.

How checkbook journalism differs from everyday journalism 

In gaining basic information regarding what checkbook journalism is, it is helpful to juxtapose this practice to conventional journalism. In so doing, you can gain a greater understanding of their similarities and differences. The primary distinction between checkbook journalism and everyday journalism is that it involves an organization requesting money to obtain the rights to a story. This differs from "everyday journalism" in which reporters, journalists, writers, and media experts simply obtain pertinent information and publish it for the general public's perusal. Because checkbook journalism involves the dissemination of money and is therefore often viewed as coercive, it is typically understood to be a less venerable form of journalism than the general type of journalism.