the smear cover

What Is Transactional Journalism?

Earlier, we talked about how humans choose headlines, filter Facebook feeds (non-algorithm, human  filters employed by Facebook), place stories “above the fold,” and decide which press releases to run as news. The same applies to the generalized practice of journalism – reporting, scheduling interviews, gaining access to people, pulling sensitive information out of people and so forth. People are flawed, and their emotions, avarice, ambition and worldviews temper their actions in the day to day journalism world.

Enter “transactional journalism.” Sharyl Attkisson’s investigative journalism book called The Smear: How Shady Political Operatives and Fake News Control What You See, What You Think, and How You Vote popularized the term in recent times. For those of you who’d like to go deeper into 2016 election analysis, this book is an eye-opener.

Put simply, transactional journalism is just what it sounds like. Favors, access, money and influence are traded for articles, interviews, power-plays and the like. Even though journalism isn’t the money-making machine it used to be thanks to the internet, there’s still power to be wielded by transacting to gain favorable outcomes for yourself or unfavorable outcomes for your opponents or competitors.

In the middle of this power play sits the underpaid journalist whose only currency is often their ability to get stories onto the front pages or into the HuffPo. A reporter’s career can turn on that coveted “scoop,” so they’re all motivated to beat their competitors to the punch when gaining access, information and secrets. That gives significant incentive to politicians, industry heads, bureaucrats, whistle-blowers, charlatans, and scammers that are interested in getting their messages across. They can trade direct access or even “off the record” info for favorable treatment, and many do this in a quid pro quo process all too familiar to Washington D.C. insiders. Of course, all kinds of people recognize the value of national and even local exposure for their causes, products, elections, gripes, vendettas and more. It’s not just a D.C. phenomenon. It’s just that the pros tend to operate there, where a lot of the money is.

So how does that look in specific day-to-day transactions between journalists and their information sources? There are all kinds of scenarios, including:

  • A source might dictate publication timing as a condition for access
  • A journalist might promise to ask specific questions while avoiding others
  • A reporter could get too close to a source personally, thus jeopardizing their objectivity and opening them for favor requests (or demands!)
  • A reporter might seek sources that align with their personal ideologies, thus benefiting the source and their own agenda

All sorts of other dilemmas – everything from blackmail to extortion – arise from this transactional orientation. It distorts the field of factual reporting while pressuring journalists to play games with sources in order to get the best coverage for their publications and accolades from their bosses.

In the past, journalists prided themselves on street smarts, persistence and logical deduction – all laudable traits for investigators following breaking news stories. However, the great reporter is the one with access to a “deep throat” or a Washington D.C. leaker from within one of the big three-letter agencies (CIA, FBI, DHS, NSA, DOD, DEA, State Department, etc.). 

The flawed system creates an informational hierarchy in the press. Only those with goodies to trade get the stories first. Then poorer information or even misinformation trickles down to the poorly-placed or novice reporters down the rungs of the ladder. It works from both sides of the equation, too. Poor sources feed shoddy journalists.

In The Smear, Attkisson wrote:

“. . . this is a world in which little happens by accident. Topics and people make news because it’s all been prearranged, preplanned, agreed upon. More than ever, the sort of “reporting” conducted as a result of such efforts, both on the conservative and liberal sides, passes for news and is rewarded with clicks from readers and kudos from media managers. It’s everything today’s quasi-semi-news media seeks: quick, easy, low-cost, low-risk, requiring little effort and drawing lots of attention from the right people.”

It’s kind of depressing and all the more reason for you to become a more savvy media consumer. Attkisson is a highly decorated investigative journalist with a resume and reputation that’s in many ways peerless in the modern age of internet journalism. Unfortunately, her type of journalism could be dying.

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