Is CBS News ethical in its Casey Anthony "48 Hours Mystery" coverage?

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Is CBS News "48 Hours Mystery" report about the Casey Anthony murder trial ethical? (Credit: CBS News, screenshot detail)

The Orlando Sentinel questioned the ethics of CBS News’ “48 Hours Mystery” special on Casey Anthony.  Anthony is the woman accused of murdering her two-year-old daughter Caylee Anthony in 2008.

In CBS’s case, the network reportedly created a “focus group to weigh Anthony’s guilt” and Richard Gabriel, who is “an Anthony defense consultant,” is head of the group. Gabriel wasn’t paid, CBS said, but he does get “national showcase” for appearing, the Orlando Sentinel explained.

In a separate article, the Orlando Sentinel reported that most of the focus group said that they “would acquit” Anthony.

The Poynter Institute’s Al Tompkins called the program’s faux-jury “shameful” for “trying this case” outside of the court system. “When do we finally allow the court system to work? If we believe there’s a miscarriage of justice, let’s expose it. We can allow the jury to hear a case and adjudicate it before we turn it into a drama,” Tompkins commented.

Is it a conflict of interest for CBS to bring in a defense consultant to lead a group deciding on one of his clients?

“A proxy jury raises questions in the first place,” the Orlando Sentinel quoted Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, as saying. “If you’re doing it with someone who’s actually working with one side, the questions about what you’re doing multiply.”

And the program also features Anthony’s former defense attorney Linda Kenney Baden who reportedly commented that Anthony “lied about a nanny kidnapping” Caylee.  Those comments might breach attorney-client privilege, the Orlando Sentinel noted.

Bob Jarvis, a Nova Southeastern University law center professor, commented on the matter, saying that attorneys should “keep confidences and secrets of clients, even after we are no longer their attorney.”  Sometimes there are exceptions, but Kenney Baden shouldn’t have made those statements because it could be “poisoning the jury,” Jarvis stated.

The CBS segment also features comments from Florida attorney general Pam Bondi, which can be viewed as another possible ethical problem given that “Bondi’s office would oppose an appeal if Anthony is convicted,” according to the Orlando Sentinel.

In its April 16th news coverage,  CBS even asks in a headline “Can Casey Anthony get a fair trial?”   The only sources quoted are from the defense and the focus group who all uniformly feel that Anthony has “been tried by the media” for the past two years.

Meanwhile, it is Anthony’s own legal team that fans the media flames every step of the way. This point is not raised by CBS News in the April 16th report.

Jarvis added that “lawyers talk too much” to the media.

“Some lawyers do it on purpose because they are publicity hounds. I tell lawyers never talk to the media. You can inadvertently slip up. In these high-profile cases, it’s hard to remember what has already come out, what does the public know, what is still a client secret.”

As iMediaEthics has reported, ABC News and CBS News have been criticized for paying Anthony in the past.

In 2009, iMediaEthics reported when it was revealed in court that ABC News paid for Casey Anthony’s parents to stay at a Ritz-Carlton hotel. CBS was also implicated with the suggestion that it paid “thousands of dollars” to Casey Anthony’s mother Cindy Anthony for appearing on an earlier program of “48 Hours Mystery.”

Cindy Anthony admitted in a sworn deposition that she was paid “in connection to the case” but “48 Hours Mystery” stated at the time that it didn’t pay for interviews, but that “licensing footage is a standard industry practice.”

In March 2010, Casey Anthony revealed in court that she was paid $200,000 by ABC News, money that she used for her legal defense.

Despite ABC News’ promise to disclose any licensing of photos or videos in a June “Good Morning America” segment featuring Cindy and George Anthony, iMediaEthics noted that there was no disclosure.

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Is CBS News ethical in its Casey Anthony “48 Hours Mystery” coverage?

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