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February 04, 2010

Of course the National Enquirer should be eligible for a Pulitzer Prize

The editor of the National Enquirer is openly angling for a Pulitzer Prize for the tabloid's expose of John Edwards' affair with Rielle Hunter, secret love child, and alleged use of campaign funds to underwrite his indiscretions.

I tend to agree with John Cook of Gawker on this one, the National Enquirer should probably be in the running. Like it or not, this was one of the big scoops of the year. Well, the last two years, really. As an investigative reporter, I like to see institutions rewarded for investing in old fashioned investigations. An insider didn't just hand this story to the Enquirer on a silver platter, they went out and dug for it.

Just to be clear, I'm not hoping the Enquirer's Edwards coverage wins. At end of the day, it was mostly tawdry gossip. It was tawdry gossip that assumed meta-importance because everyone knows that gossip influences elections, but still.

Besides, Edwards was already politically finished by the time the Enquirer nailed down the details. I'm sure the Pulitzer judges can find reporting that had a bigger impact, maybe even work that exposed injustice or--gasp--made someone's life better.

Enquirer's reputation of paying for information should complicate its Pulitzer ambitions. That's generally considered a no-no in mainstream journalism. That said, big news outlets routinely find ways to pay celebrity interview subjects without paying them. For example, sometimes they'll pay the subject a ridiculous fee to license some snapshot of the person with the understanding that the photograph comes with an exclusive interview. 

According to John Cook, there's nothing in the Pulitzer rulebook that disqualifies checkbook journalism. But that doesn't mean that judges shouldn't take reporting methods into account. Information volunteered freely is generally better and more reliable journalism than the word of paid informants.

It would also be harmful to the profession to openly reward checkbook journalism. (If that's actually what the Edwards coverage was based on.) If pay-to-pay becomes the norm, journalism becomes even more of a gated community. When it comes time to hand out awards, corporations that buy scoops should get less consideration than reporters who earn them the old fashioned way.

We don't know that the Enquirer paid for info in the Edwards story. Rumor has it that there were plenty of disgruntled people willing to spill for free. If the Enquirer's editor can assure the Pulitzer judges that his reporters played by generally accepted journalistic rules, then the series should at least be a serious contender for the prize--assuming the judges find the editor's claims credible. 

Cook does a good job of debunking several the nitpicky excuses for disqualifying the Edwards coverage outright, such as the claim that the Enquirer isn't eligible because it isn't really a newspaper.

Treating the Enquirer's Edwards reporting a serious Pulitzer contender is like nominating Avatar for Best Picture. I seriously doubt it was the year's best film, but an endeavor that succeeds so spectacularly on its own terms deserves to be nominated.

Comments

Great post. In my fantasy world, an Enquirer nomination would make some of the "serious" purveyors of news rethink their own work. So much of what passes for news is just rewarmed press releases. Or we get "he said/she said" articles that substitute faux balance for real investigation and analysis. As you say, the Enquirer actually did the legwork, and that oughtta make a lot of journalists remember what good reporting requires.

It's a sad commentary that such rags, are the only ones left with reporters that go out and get the story.

Now the people being reported on, write the stories and give them to reporters to reprint.

As Stephen Colbert remarked, "We tell you what to say, and you write it down."

Information volunteered freely is generally better and more reliable journalism than the word of paid informants.

Is there empirical evidence for this claim or is it your informed opinion based on your own experience as a journalist? It seems to me there are plenty of interested parties who might feed reporters misinformation because they benefit from having it published, just as there are others who provide misinformation for financial gain.

Paid informants get paid to say what the reporter wants to hear. That's a huge bias. Of course, it's not the only source of bias. Some people get paid by a third party to try to spin you. Many sources have ulterior motives of some sort.

We've seen what havoc paid snitches have wreaked in the war on drugs.

There's also the question of the pat-on-the-head nomination. To compare to the Oscars, quite a few of the films nominated for a given award are nominated with the knowledge that they will never win but with the intention to simply recognize their accomplishment.

There's nothing wrong with this practice. Deserving to win and deserving to be nominated may not be the same thing. Given two works that cannot actually win the award it is probably better to nominate based on what statement can be made by that nomination, even if the work nominated is less deserving of the actual award. In this case the statement is something like, "even these assholes can get it right sometime and we'd like to encourage them to do so more often."

I think you drank the Kool Aid on this one, Lindsay.

Paid informants get paid to say what the reporter wants to hear.

I'm not at all sure that this is an accurate characterization, but even if it is, it would not necessarily follow that Information volunteered freely is generally better and more reliable journalism than the word of paid informants. In any case, in doesn't answer the question of whether your claims regarding the reliability of journalism relying on paid informants is based on empirical evidence or your opinion based on your own experience as a journalist.

Paid sources do get paid to say what the reporter wants to hear. The source only gets paid if s/he's selling something the reporter wants to buy. Paying for information is a direct incentive to confabulate or exaggerate. If you're willing to say "Sarah Palin had an extramarital affair that broke up a snowmobile dealership," you've got a much better chance of getting paid than someone who says, "Nope, I don't know anything about that."

There's also the cognitive dissonance angle, the more you pay for something, the less likely you are to decide that it's crap after all. If you blow your budget on an expensive interview, and you still don't trust the source at the end of it, you're less likely to simply discount what they say. (Besides cognitive dissonance, you know your boss is going to be furious if you admit that you paid all that money for nothing.) It's counterproductive to set up a dynamic where being extra-skeptical makes you feel like the sucker, which is exactly what would happen in a pay-for-play scenario.

Imagine two alternative scenarios: i) A reporter pays for information, ii) A reporter gets the same information from the same when the source has nothing to gain from sharing the information. I think it's obvious that the information is more trustworthy the less ulterior motive a source has to give it.

You're right that money isn't the only ulterior motive a source might have. But in general, the less ulterior motive a source has, the more credence the information deserves. You can't control what preexisting ulterior motives your sources have, but you can avoid manufacturing additional ulterior motives by introducing money into the equation.

This is based in part on my experience as a reporter. I've never paid anyone for information. However, I have noticed that the best information comes when you establish a rapport with the subject that makes them i) like you, ii) trust you, iii) want to help you. Rapport actually helps counteract other incentives that people may have to deceive you. Most people find it harder to lie to someone they like and respect than to a stranger.

There's a terrific essay called "Loosening Lips: The Art of the Interview" by Eric Nadler, who has won more than one Pulitzer prize for investigative reporting without paying a cent. It spells out a lot these principles.

I heard Nadler speak at the Investigative Reporters and Editors conference in Maryland last year and he has some amazing stories to tell about how he convinced people to tell him stuff that they hand no earthy reason to admit, on the record. One source was a sailor who was supposed to be keeping watch on a ship that ran aground. Nadler got him to admit, on the record, that he was largely blind because of a head injury and his bosses were making him stand the watch anyway.

Rapport is surprisingly easy to build. You'd be amazed how well people respond to a friendly and straightforward approach. If you're good at your job, people will tell you amazing stuff for free. If you're having trouble building a rapport with someone, that may be a signal that the person isn't trustworthy, though not necessarily.

Rapport doesn't mean being buddy-buddy with your sources or socializing with them or anything like that. It's kind of its own thing.

Interrogators have amassed mountains of evidence that rapport-based interviewing is what gives you the most reliable and comprehensive information. Cf. Matthew Alexander's "How to Break a Terrorist." Torture is the flipside of bribery. Information obtained under torture is unreliable because the subject has an overwhelming incentive to say what s/he thinks the torturer wants to hear. Someone trying to sell their story to a tabloid has an overriding incentive to tell the most sensational story they can.

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