SPJ Slams ABC's Checkbook Journalism in Casey Anthony Case

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The Society of Professional Journalists publicly slammed ABC News yesterday for not disclosing the $200,000 payment made to the mother of Caylee Anthony, the two-year-old daughter she is accused of killing.  The Orlando Sentinel first blogged the SPJ statement last night.

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

ABC gave Casey Anthony $200,000 for “exclusive rights to an extensive library of photos and home video,” Media Bistro reported.  Anthony is charged with the murder of her two-year-old daughter Caylee, who first went missing in June 2008 and whose remains were found in December of that year, MSNBC reported.

The SPJ Ethics Committee said in the statement that paying for sources raises questions about a news organization’s credibility and accuracy.

The SPJ Code of Ethics says journalists should “avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived” and “be wary of sources offering information for favors or money; avoid bidding for news.”

Beat the Press blogger Ralph Ranalli called the incident “a new low in checkbook journalism.”

Southern California Public Radio reported a comment from former NBC News President Lawrence K. Grossman: “I regard it as a totally unethical journalistic practice to pay people for access that way.”

Lack of disclosure aside, the Orlando Sentinel’s blog expressed concern about the size of the paycheck ABC wrote Casey Anthony.

The blog reported that “The licensing of such material (videos and photos) is a standard industry practice. But the usual amount is far less, said several network insiders who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The more likely sum is $5,000 to $10,000, one said.”

The SPJ report listed a couple other examples of checkbook journalism at the end of last year:

“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.”

Perhaps ironically, ABC ran a story on its Web site on March 7, titled “Cases of Missing Women and Young Girls Get Varying Media Attention: Some Missing Persons Cases Captivate the Country While Others Get Little Notice.”

In the report, the Caylee Anthony case is listed as one of the missing persons cases that became high profile despite the huge number of missing persons reported every year. (Is there really any wonder why a case where $200,000 is spent by ABC News gets more attention than the others?)

ABC’s report also quotes Robert Thompson, a professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University, saying:  “Once one of these stories is decided to be covered, there’s no turning back.  You’ve sent your reporters and your trucks to it, and you become invested in it. You start building interest in the story, and your audience wants to hear more about it, so you keep everyone there to continue reporting on it.”

Clearly, ABC became invested at least financially with the Caylee Anthony case.

SPJ Ethics Committee Chairman Andy Schotz wrote an e-mail response to StinkyJournalism’s questions which included asking for a definition of “checkbook journalism.”  Schotz writes:

“SPJ doesn’t try to set a specific definition for ‘checkbook journalism.’

“But, speaking only for myself, I would consider it to be any attempt by a news organization to provide something of value (cash, gifts, favors) in exchange for an interview, information or access.

“I can’t think of a good reason to pay a source. If there were one, though, it certainly would be something to disclose as part of the report.

“Damaged credibility is a pretty big effect. If readers/viewers/listeners can’t trust your reporting, you’re not worth much.
Another effect is that paying one source creates a standard. Other sources will come to expect and demand it. Bidding wars ensue.

“I’d consider a hotel room something of value. ABC provided it in hopes of getting an interview.  If there were some extenuating circumstance (say, the couple’s house burned down and they had nowhere to go), there could be argument in favor of helping them with lodging. And, again, that would be something to disclose.”

Hat tip: The Orlando Sentinel

Update: 03/26/10: 9:23 AM EST:  As MediaBistro reported, “ABC News has furthered (sic) explained their position in the matter, telling the SPJ, ‘We should have disclosed it to our audience.’  The network has also made it a policy to disclose payments such as this as part of its reporting.”

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SPJ Slams ABC’s Checkbook Journalism in Casey Anthony Case

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