Several major news organizations drew criticism in recent months for paying sources or providing gifts in exchange for exclusive licensing or interview rights.
ABC News Pays $200,000 for Baby Pictures of Murdered Toddler
An attorney for Casey Anthony, a Florida woman accused of murdering her 2-year-old daughter, revealed in court that ABC News had paid Anthony's family $200,000 in 2008 for what ABC called "an extensive library of photos and home video" of Anthony's daughter.
Jose Baez, Anthony's lead attorney, revealed the $200,000 payment in court on March 19, 2010. According to a March 19 story on National Public Radio (NPR), the pictures and footage were used in Sept. 5, 2008 broadcasts on the ABC programs "Good Morning America" and "20/20."
ABC released a statement on March 19 saying that "we licensed exclusive rights to an extensive library of photos and home videos for use by our broadcast platforms, affiliates and international partners. No use of the material was tied to any interview."
The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) condemned the payment to Anthony in a March 23 press release castigating major broadcast networks for the practice of what it called "checkbook journalism." The release said the ABC payments violated the SPJ Code of Ethics, which states that journalists should "avoid conflicts of interest, real and perceived," "be wary of sources offering information for favors and money," and "avoid bidding for news."
"Paying someone while covering them breaches basic journalism ethics," SPJ Ethics Committee Chairman Andy Schotz said, according to the press release. "ABC's failure to disclose this business relationship as part of its coverage the last two years made the breach worse."
In a March 19 post on the Poynter Institute's website, Poynter's ethics group leader Kelly McBride said she thought the payment sounded like a "pretty lucrative photo licensing deal."
"I don't know how much [is typical] when they really have to license photos, but $200,000 is pretty expensive," McBride said. "I question all of these over-the-top licensing arrangements because you are essentially paying for a source to talk to you and you are going around the rules that say you are not allowed to do that."
In the March 19 NPR report, former ABC News anchor Aaron Brown, who is currently a journalism professor at Arizona State University, called the ABC payments "the worst example of what has become a common practice."
"Even if you are OK with skirting the ethical edges some of the time by buying pictures from principals, this seems way over that line," Brown said.
NBC Provides Chartered Jet for Father in Brazilian Custody Battle
NBC News provided a chartered jet for a father and his son to fly from Brazil to America on Dec. 24, 2009, after a highly publicized international custody battle. According to a December 24 Reuters report, an NBC reporter interviewed the father during the flight and was the only member of the media on the plane.
After landing in the United States, David Goldman, a New Jersey father who won custody of his son after a five-year court battle with the boy's Brazilian stepfather, provided another exclusive interview to NBC News, parts of which aired on the Christmas Eve broadcast of the "NBC Nightly News," as well as the next day's broadcast of "The Today Show."
On Dec. 28, 2009, the SPJ Ethics Committee issued a statement saying that NBC News "breached widely accepted ethical journalism guidelines" by providing the jet for Goldman. The SPJ release emphasized that the duty of the news media is to report news, not help create it. "By making itself part of a breaking news story on which it was reporting - apparently to cash in on the exclusivity assured by its expensive gesture - NBC jeopardized its journalistic independence and credibility in its initial and subsequent reports," the SPJ release said. "In effect, the network branded the story as its own, creating a corporate and promotional interest in the way the story unfolds. NBC's ability to report the story fairly has been compromised by its financial involvement."
The SPJ release proposed increased openness as a solution. "NBC must now, belatedly, explain why it entangled its news reporting and corporate interests in this story, as well as the terms of any deal it made with the Goldman family," Ethics Committee chair Schotz said, according to the release. "NBC also is ethically bound to adequately disclose its active role in the story in each of its future reports on the Goldmans."
In a Dec. 29, 2009 post on the gossip and media news blog Gawker, staff writer John Cook wrote that the practice of indirectly paying for interviews has become common among news organizations.
"In the Goldman case, the subterfuge is actually in the meaning of the word 'pay,'" Cook wrote. "NBC News does not 'pay' for interviews like a trashy tabloid, it just provides goods and services like private jet travel at no cost to people of public interest who are willing to exclusively talk to NBC News employees."
CNN Pays $10,000 for Photos of Thwarted Airplane Bomber
CNN paid $10,000 for the rights to a cell phone picture taken by Jasper Schuringa, a Dutch citizen who helped overpower an alleged terrorist on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Dec. 25, 2009. Schuringa's first interview after the incident was also on CNN.
According to a Dec. 26 post on the blog Mediaite, CNN said it paid a "licensing fee" for the exclusive cell phone image. "While network shows like ABC's 20/20 or NBC's Dateline often license photos and video for interviews, it's rare to see CNN get into the mix," the Mediaite post said. "Obviously they wanted to land the 'get' - but at what cost, literal and figurative?"
The March 23 SPJ press release denouncing "checkbook journalism" also mentioned CNN's payment for use of the photos. "News organizations that claim they're getting free interviews or access after giving sources thousands of dollars in cash or gifts are being disingenuous," Ethics Committee Chair Schotz said, according to the release. "It's time to end this unethical shell game."
- RUTH DEFOSTER
SILHA RESEARCH ASSISTANT