Shafer: Paying Sources Isn’t Wrong, Just Expensive

money large04302010.jpgIn response to the ongoing intrigue surrounding the Case of the Wayward iPhone, Slate’s Jack Shafer examines the moral and practical implications of paying sources for information. (Gawker Media ponied up $5,000 for its iPhone exclusive.)

Shafer says paying for information isn’t always bad, wondering aloud whether people would have minded if Daniel Ellsberg had charged The New York Times for a look at the Pentagon Papers, or whether it would have been so bad if some $$ had greased the skids to get the Abu Ghraib photos published sooner. In those circumstances, the way of getting the information wouldn’t be as important as the information itself.

But, there are caveats. Shafer also says it would cost too much to sort through all the information that would flood the market. He then goes on to say that paying for stories poses an economic problem:

In my nightmare scenario, sources of free information would dry up and people would charge a metered rate just to talk. As my questions started to converge upon the answers I was looking for, I’d become hostage to my source as he flipped the flag on his meter and said, “More questions? More money!” Oh, the haggling that would ensue! Where would I ever find the time to file the actual story?

He then goes on to admit that there’s already a lot of money changing hands (TV networks routinely pay sources for photos and comp their travel). Since that’s the case, we’d venture, Shafer’s nightmare scenario is already here.