Who Gets Paid for Interviews?

The public has no clue who is remunerated to talk about the news, but they should. And so should other journalists.

There is a transparency deficit when it comes to journalists roles’ on TV and radio.

By Adina Solomon

About five years ago, Alex Kane wrote about efforts to prevent the U.S. from joining the United Nations’ treaty for people with disabilities. Kane, then an editor at AlterNet, was invited to talk about his story on Al Jazeera English TV, his first appearance on the channel. They sent a car to pick him up, which was a welcome first.

After the interview, a producer sent Kane something else he’d never seen before: a request for information on how he’d like to receive his $350 fee for the appearance.

“I didn’t expect to be paid,” said Kane, now a freelance journalist in New York City. “I was surprised, and frankly didn’t ask questions.”

People who tune into radio and TV news often witness journalists appearing as invited guests, talking about their work or weighing in on current events. But many people — sometimes even the journalists themselves — are unaware that these interviews can be compensated. Some large media outlets pay for these appearances, usually ranging from $50 to $150.

The spotty knowledge of these payments means some journalists who make appearances in media don’t receive the same compensation as others, while the public doesn’t know a crucial detail about how pay in media works. The close-lipped nature of this practice also ensures that standards are difficult to ascertain.

For this story, I spoke with journalists who reported receiving pay from NPR, the BBC, PRI, Al Jazeera English and CBC. When contacted, no outlet agreed to an interview, though the BBC and CBC provided email statements. (I didn’t get any response from NPR or Al Jazeera English. PRI told me they would send a statement, but never did.)

“Journalists like other contributors may sometimes be offered a fee depending on the nature of the contribution and the level of disturbance — for instance, when an extra commitment of time or research is required,” according to the BBC.

“We don’t pay for stories or interviews regardless of who is the source,” a spokesperson for CBC English Services said. “That said, on occasion, we do pay people including journalists, for expert commentary and analysis.”

Paying for interviews is a decades-long practice. Richard Davies, who worked for 30 years for organizations such as ABC News, said commercial radio outlets, as well as the BBC, often paid him and other expert guests. Davies, now a podcaster and podcast consultant for DaviesContent in New York City, received $50 to $100 for appearances in the 1980s and 1990s, extending until three years ago.

“A small payment is really a form of respect,” Davies said. “It’s respecting you for the time that you’re giving. This is a business relationship, so I think that there should be a small payment, especially if you’re giving your expert opinion.”

Today, paid interviews have contributed to filling the gap left by a decline in foreign staff correspondents. Outlets sometimes pay journalists, usually freelance, for making an appearance to talk about on-the-ground reporting in places without a staff reporter.

This happened when freelance journalist Laura Kasinof reported from Yemen in 2011 to 2012 during the Arab Spring protests. Few media outlets employed reporters in Yemen, so many used freelancers instead, she said. In addition to stringing for The New York Times, Kasinof made TV and radio appearances with outlets including the BBC, CBC, NPR and Al Jazeera English TV, typically getting paid $50 to a little more than $100.

“Thinking about it years later, they were definitely using me from a conflict zone and paying a whole lot less than they would pay a staff reporter,” said Kasinof, now based in Tbilisi, Georgia. She would sometimes spend three hours a day on media appearances.

When a media outlet pays for an interview, they really pay for a journalist’s reporting, said Anna-Catherine Brigida, a freelance journalist in El Salvador who received $250 for a radio interview with PRI in 2017 when she was based in Guatemala. (She didn’t know that PRI paid. The radio outlet offered it to her.)

“It’s a different format of us relaying our reporting,” Brigida said. “In that case, instead of me sitting down and writing the story that I had reported, I just talked it out with the host of the show to give them content for the show. I think that in that sense, it’s a fair way of us being compensated for our work.”

Martha Pskowski, a freelance journalist in Mexico City, did her first interviews in 2017 after an earthquake in Mexico City. She wasn’t paid and didn’t know to ask. Then when Pskowski reported from the Mexican state of Oaxaca on the migrant caravan, she found out from another reporter that the BBC pays 44 pounds ($57) for appearances. Since then, Pskowski asks for compensation.

She said payment makes sense for breaking news interviews since the outlet relies on a freelancer’s original reporting rather than sending a staff reporter to the scene. It also takes additional work from the freelancer.

“If you’re in a breaking news situation, it does take a bit more effort to be in a place with good cell connection, a good internet connection,” Pskowski said.

But paying for interviews goes beyond breaking news. Journalists are also paid for their expertise. After Kasinof came back to the U.S., she sometimes got paid for interviews about Yemen, even though she was no longer reporting in person.

“I would get paid for those and I would expect to get paid because I still felt like it was my work,” she said. “I was kind of working as a freelance consultant on Yemen.”

It can be a confusing line since journalism standards don’t allow for paying sources.

“Typically, the reason journalists have been averse to what we used to call ‘checkbook journalism’ is that if you pay somebody for his or her story, it feels like maybe that person is going want to enhance the story a little bit,” said Scott Libin, senior fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Hubbard School of Journalism. “You don’t want that. You want facts. You don’t want somebody who is trying to sweeten the substance or content of what you may offer to make it worth paying for.”

In the absence of publicly available standards, journalists still come to similar conclusions about when it’s acceptable to receive payment for broadcast appearances. If an outlet is using a journalist’s reporting or expertise, pay the journalist. But if a story reports on a journalist or the journalist is promoting something, don’t pay. (For example, when Kasinof made appearances to promote her book on Yemen, she didn’t request or receive compensation.)

Media such as newspapers, magazines, and online written stories don’t pay journalists. Davies said those media differ from broadcasters.

“What you say is part of their product. It’s part of their relationship with their listening or viewing audience,” he said. “It’s a little more indirect in the case of a newspaper or magazine article where the journalist may interview or have a conversation with many different sources.”

Brigida said it should be standard for TV and radio outlets to pay for interviews as journalists push for fair compensation.

“Another part of that conversation would have to be a recognition from the public of the fact that a lot of freelancers are probably making less than minimum wage or are living below the poverty line,” she said. “There’s a big problem within the industry of fairly compensating for our work.”

Whether journalists should be paid for interviews depends on the case, said Libin, who led the committee that wrote the Radio Television Digital News Association’s current code of ethics.

“It can be a blurry line,” Libin said. “But if the person is playing a journalistic role in crafting or creating the content, then I think it’s fair to compensate that person. And I would hope it would be kind of clear that this person is more like one of our reporters for the moment than she is one of our newsmakers. We’re not interviewing this person because of something that happened to her or a book she wrote. This is somebody who is helping us cover this event or issue today.”

In order to maintain public trust, outlets should be transparent about the role journalists are playing when they make an appearance. Libin suggested that outlets say they “retained the services” of the journalist, or use some similar phrase.

“Transparency goes a long way in minimizing any harm that might be done,” Libin said. “I would like to think that if a news organization pays someone for an interview, that there could be a way that I could know that and I could weigh that as a listener or a viewer so that might affect the way I process the information.”

Adina Solomon is an Atlanta-based freelance journalist who writes about business, culture, food, city design, and everything in between. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, CityLab, Columbia Journalism Review, and other publications. Find her on Twitter at @adinars

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Last edited: March 25, 2019
Author: Adina Solomon
Editor: Alexander Zaitchik
Artwork: Photo by Sam McGhee on Unsplash