When Should You Pay Sources for Interviews?

compensation freelance writing tips interview sme sources sourcing subject matter experts Jun 22, 2021

People ask the BEST questions in the group coaching sessions! I just love the creative queries nurses come up with as they work at transitioning to freelance writing.

A couple of weeks ago, a nurse in the group for the Complete Guide to Content Marketing Writing for Nurses course asked, “When do you pay the sources you interview?”

And the hair on the back of my neck stood up a little bit, because the immediate answer to that is “NEVER.”

But, as always, the true answer is much more nuanced, so let me talk about that.

Situations Where You May Need to Interview Sources

You may be called upon to interview people on both the journalism side and the content marketing writing side of your freelance career.

On the journalism side, you may need to speak to a nurse practitioner, physician, researcher, or another type of expert to add color and credibility to your article. Typically, your editor will tell you how many sources to interview for the article you’ve been assigned.

On the content writing side, you may need to interview a company’s own subject matter experts (SMEs), or your client may ask you to interview outside sources to add another voice or opinion to the topic. For instance, I’ve often interviewed “outside” SMEs for white papers because this outside voice confers balance to the “reporting” in the white paper, which, in turn, conveys more credibility to the reader.

The subject of “paying” or “compensating” sources doesn’t come up on the content side nearly so often as it does on the journalism side. But burn this into your brain: Paying (or otherwise compensating) any source to be included in your article is unethical. Never do it.

When Interview Subjects Request Compensation

The fact it’s unethical to compensate sources does not mean that interview subjects or their PR representatives don’t ask for direct or indirect compensation from time to time. They definitely do. Sources don’t usually ask for cash money to be included in an article, but they may ask for other types of compensation, such as:

  • Link to their website
  • Mention of their new book
  • Link to their new book at Amazon (or some other retail outlet)
  • Mention or link to anything they’re currently selling

This may sound innocuous to you. If a person you want to interview for your article has just published a book and asks you to link to it, what harm is there in it?

Well, in the first place, you don’t have the authority to guarantee the final article will include the source at all, let alone a mention or link to their new book. Your editor (and possibly your editor’s editor) will have the final say in what version of your article actually gets published. It’s not at all uncommon for editors to strike entire paragraphs from a piece – and your source’s quotes might get axed along with that paragraph.

Oops.

Second, on a deeper ethical level, you must avoid the appearance that your coverage can be bought. As a journalist, you have a duty to the public (your readers) to provide trustworthy reporting. This means never agreeing to compensate sources, who should be willing to speak freely on the record without receiving remuneration of any kind. If a source won’t speak to you without a guarantee of compensation, find another source.

I’m sad to say that this sort of quid-pro-quo sourcing/reporting has become commonplace in our industry. Many sources (or their publicists) do, in fact, expect a link back to a website or whatever in return for an interview. And a great many “reporters” solicit sources by guaranteeing a link to the interviewee’s website or whatever. (I, myself, was recently solicited in just such a way. The person approaching me said, “I would really like to include your remarks in this roundup, and we will provide a link to your website.”)

Note that this sort of behavior is not journalism. It is not reporting. It is…something else. But definitely not journalism.

What to Do if a Source Demands Compensation

If you work as a health reporter long enough, you’re going to find yourself in this scenario: You interview an SME, and it goes very well, and you include the source’s quotes in your article. You add a note to your editor that includes a link to the source’s website, so the editor can decide whether or not to include it.

Eventually, the article publishes, and guess what? The source is quoted, but there’s no link back to their website.

Now, you receive an angry email from either the source or their publicist. This email demands that you insert the web link or unpublish the piece. The source says they are withdrawing their participation in your article after-the-fact, and they will send a DMCA “takedown notice” to the website if you don’t unpublish the piece immediately.

Yikes.

Now what??

The thing to do here is remember your role. You are “only” the reporter. You do not have any editorial authority to do anything about this. The only thing you should do is forward the email to your editor. They can handle it.

You also might send a polite email back to the source or publicist that simply says, “I’ve forwarded your email to my editor. I have no authority to take the actions you requested. Thank you.”

That’s it.

This is where being “just the writer” works to your advantage. You need not deal with irate sources.

And now cross that person off your list of potential future sources. You should never work with them again.

I hope this clears up the question of “when do you pay sources?” Short answer: Never. Longer answer: Even if providing a link back or something along those lines is permitted by your editor, never guarantee these things to a source.

 

 

Has a source ever asked you to guarantee a link back to their book or website? Tell us what happened in the comments!

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