Is it Ethical for Journalists to be Paid-Per-Click?

Upon hearing that The Telegraph were planning on introducing a new payment system for their journalists based on a paid-per-click model earlier this week, I decided to look into whether this is actually ethical, and what potential implications may arise as a result of it. In an email leaked to The Guardian newspaper, the editor of The Telegraph introduced the idea of using the “Stars” system which ultimately links the performance and reach of articles with reward. Therefore, it is being proposed that some elements of journalists’ pay will be linked to the performance of their articles- with payment being linked to the number of article ‘clicks’ and the number of subscriptions to The Telegraph’s website.

Image: Be Connected.

Although many industries use a supplementary reward or bonus scheme based off of performance, the difference here is that the journalists’ main salary will be partly based on their performance and the outreach of their articles. Whether or not you think it is ethical for someone’s salary to be performance-based is one ethical concern, however I believe if this system is implemented, there will be additional negative implications for the journalism industry.

In order to increase the number of clicks to an article, there may be a rise in ‘clickbait’ or misleading headlines, in order to generate a lot of attention. From a PR perspective- will this negatively impact on the publication’s reputation? If a respected newspaper suddenly starts producing a high quantity of low quality, clickbait articles, surely this will damage their reputation, and possibly their credibility as a news source? It could be anticipated that, in order to increase their income, journalists may create multiple news stories in a day. Although this will increase the speed at which consumers receive news, it may also increase the prevalence of articles which rely upon uncredible sources of information. As an example, as a news consumer myself, I have noticed that many celebrities’ Instagram posts and stories are later on made into ‘news’ articles- most of which are making stories out of little information, with uncredible and misleading headlines. In my experience, I have found that the Coronavirus pandemic has only exasperated this, which may be partly due to the lack of events to report on due to the lockdown, and the increase in time that celebrities spend creating content for social media. In the last week, how many news articles have you read that have been based off of information derived from social media? I think the number will be rather high.

Image: Daily Mail.

Therefore, with a significant increase in clickbait articles, and articles written based on information gathered from social media, surely this will only increase if this payment scheme is implemented? In terms of long-term reputational damage, will this lead to decreased faith and confidence in news outlets? Another factor which is likely to encourage reputational damage is the rise in fake news. Fake news has risen in prominence over recent years- which is arguably due to the accessibility and spread of unverified, opinion-based information on social media platforms such as Twitter. Therefore, if journalists increase reliance upon social media for sources of information, there is a risk that fake news could be spread into the mainstream press. Do you think that there is a risk that fake news will appear more frequently within the press?

In all, I feel that introducing a salary based on the performance of articles is unethical and could pose consequences to the wider journalism industry and the public perception of the press. In the best-case scenario, the journalists will be under increased pressure to produce a higher quantity of articles which attract significant attention. However, it is likely that the introduction of this scheme could cause negative implications for the journalism industry, due to the increased reliance on social media for ‘news’ stories, the spread of fake news into mainstream media, a rise in clickbait articles and a subsequent negative influence on the reputation of news outlets. Do you think this is an ethical way to pay journalists? Would you agree that the introduction of a scheme like this could present ethical issues, or do you think this may actually be a good thing for journalists?

Thank you for reading!

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