Sharing stories while begging for bread


Is there ever a situation when money should change hands after an interview?

Compensating— and conversely, accepting gifts from— your subjects is almost universally regarded as a major no-no in the world of journalism. Journalists should not have to be beholden to their subjects and obligated to paint them favorably, and neither should they be tied only to the subjects who can pay in order to be interviewed. By the same token, journalists paying subjects for interviews undermines the (ideally) egalitarian nature of news coverage, whereby subjects freely consent to sharing their stories with a journalist without slapping a price tag on their words. For most journalistic subjects, their time and their stories can be freely given— albeit sometimes begrudgingly— and the notion of payment need not even cross the mind of either party. But this is not always the case.

I am, of course, referring to a situation in which the human subject of a piece of journalism (or perhaps a film, or even art) is one of the proverbial “least of these.” The notion of interviewing, filming, or photographing the homeless, victims of war or disease— who may be reaching out a hand for help even as the shutter clicks— presents a compelling ethical and moral dilemma.

Speaking purely from limited personal experience, I’ve spoken with some of the homeless downtown in the city where I live, which is home to one of the country’s premiere journalism schools. I asked one elderly man, who begs on the street corner with a cardboard sign almost every day, how many times he had been interviewed by students. Lots of times, he said. Had they ever given him anything? He shook his head.

To be clear— I am not writing this to demonize college students, especially journalism students who I know are often desperate for stories, not to mention strapped for cash (I am still intimately acquainted with that world). And far be it from me to judge another person’s personal generosity when it comes to encountering the homeless. I do, however, think the issue is worth reflecting on from both an ethical and moral standpoint.

Most people even use the terms ethics and morals interchangeably, but the truth is that ethics proceed from your morals. Morals are a person’s deeply held beliefs about what constitutes right and wrong; ethics are the more practical guidelines that proscribe behavior and offer a framework for your actions in the real world. As we all know, certain groups may have “codes of ethics” that seek to offer behavioral guidance, and these are based on moral principles— they do not and cannot supersede the morals on which they are based.  

Is it ethically right to give money to a homeless person before or after interviewing them? If you are specifically promising them payment in exchange for the privilege of interviewing them, then perhaps not. If the ethical principle of journalism articulated above— that paying your subjects in exchange for interviews is wrong— is to be upheld, it should be applied universally. Don’t use the promise of payment to entice subjects to be interviewed, no matter who the subject is.

In terms of the morality of the situation, it might be helpful to think of the person in front of you not primarily as your subject, but as a human being worthy of respect and dignity. While journalistic codes of ethics are important, for sure, you must do what is morally right— morals are, by definition, compelling. If the person in front of you is so destitute that they are asking you for help even as you ask them questions, perhaps duty to humanity should supersede journalistic duty. Put yourself in their shoes; while the story you’re writing will hopefully help them in less concrete ways, perhaps assessing the situation to see what you can do for the person right here, right now may be the best course of action. If you’re worried about being accused of being ethically unscrupulous, you don’t have to tell the person that you’ll pay them in exchange for an interview…simply ask to do the interview, conduct it in a regular fashion, and then care for the person in whatever way you see fit afterwards. The actions need not be connected, and your conscience will hopefully be clearer as a result knowing you acted with compassion. 

Victims of war present their own set of moral and ethical dilemmas, and I feel vastly unqualified to speak on the matter since I have no experience in that area. If you care to weigh in on this discussion, or have experience with this kind of situation, please leave a comment— I would love to hear from you.  


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