SPJ condemns ABC’s “checkbook journalism”

Checkbook journalism?The Society of Professional Journalists isn’t happy with the “growing trend of checkbook journalism”, and released a statement citing the recent admission that ABC paid the family of a murdered woman $200,000 for exclusive rights to photos and home videos of the deceased.

Here is the entire SPJ press release (thanks to Media Matters for spotting it):

INDIANAPOLIS — The Society of Professional Journalists’ Ethics Committee condemns the growing trend of “checkbook journalism” at major broadcast networks.

On Thursday, during a pretrial hearing in Orlando, Fla., to determine if Casey Anthony – accused of murdering her daughter – is indigent, her attorney revealed that ABC News paid Anthony’s family $200,000.

In a statement after the payment was revealed in court, ABC said that in August 2008, it bought exclusive rights to “an extensive library of photos and home video for use by our broadcasts, platforms, affiliates and international partners. No use of the material was tied to any interview.”

Casey Anthony is charged with first-degree murder in the death of her 2-year-old daughter, Caylee, whose disappearance in June 2008 became the focus of national media attention.

“Paying someone while covering them breaches basic journalism ethics,” SPJ Ethics Committee Chairman Andy Schotz said. “ABC’s failure to disclose this business relationship as part of its coverage the last two years made the breach worse.”

Although several news organizations reported ABC’s payment to the Anthony family, ABC itself did not disclose it when broadcasting the pictures and video, as it should have done.

This week, ABC spokeswoman Cathie Levine told SPJ that the $200,000 payment was not for an interview, but for licensing exclusive rights, which she said is a common practice for broadcast news organizations.

Still, “we should have disclosed it to our audience,” she said. Because of this mistake, the network has made it a policy to disclose payments such as this one as part of its reporting, she said.

The SPJ Ethics Committee says news organizations that pay sources, for whatever reason, while covering them inject themselves in those stories and develop an “ownership” interest. The public can legitimately question a news organization’s credibility and doubt whether its reports are fair and accurate.

The SPJ Code of Ethics says journalists should:

  • Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.
  • Be wary of sources offering information for favors or money; avoid bidding for news.

The Ethics Committee is troubled by how widespread the practice of paying sources has become and the extravagant amounts of money changing hands.

Last year, ABC paid for Caylee Anthony’s grandparents to stay three nights at a hotel as part of the network’s plan to interview them.

Levine said it’s common for news programs to pay for accommodations for guests. In this case, the grandparents came home from a trip to find journalists surrounding their house, she said.

CBS agreed to pay the grandparents $20,000 as a licensing fee to participate in the network’s news coverage, the Orlando Sentinel has reported.

In May 2009, ABC paid for Anthony Rakoczy of Pennsylvania to pick up his daughter in Florida after a fake kidnapping attempt and for return plane tickets for Rakoczy and his daughter. Levine said ABC covered both legs of the trip and disclosed the free air travel in both stories.

Two other prominent examples surfaced at the end of 2009.

In December, the SPJ Ethics Committee chastised NBC for providing a chartered jet for David Goldman of New Jersey and his son to fly home from Brazil after a custody battle. Not surprisingly, NBC got an exclusive interview with Goldman and video footage during that private jet ride.

Days later, CNN paid $10,000 for the rights to an image taken by Jasper Schuringa, the Dutch citizen who overpowered an alleged Christmas Day bomber on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit. CNN also got an exclusive interview with Schuringa.

“News organizations that claim they’re getting free interviews or access after giving sources thousands of dollars in cash or gifts are being disingenuous,” Schotz said. “It’s time to end this unethical shell game.”

Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press. For more information about SPJ, please visit www.spj.org.”