SPJ Ethics Committee decries checkbook journalism – again – with news coverage of Casey Anthony
For Immediate Release:
Hagit Limor, SPJ President, (513) 852-4012, firstname.lastname@example.org
Kevin Smith, SPJ Ethics Committee Chairman, email@example.com
INDIANAPOLIS – The revelation this week that ABC News paid a second source close to the Casey Anthony murder trial – raising the total price of exclusive coverage to $215,000 – underscores a growing trend of buying news content and it stands to undermine journalistic credibility, the Society of Professional Journalists’ Ethics Committee said today.
ABC News and other networks have paid licensing fees for exclusive information in the past, and those practices have been challenged by SPJ as undermining news legitimacy and creating an environment of “truth-selling.”
In this latest incident, the man who found the body of Caylee Anthony testified this week at the trial that ABC paid him $15,000 for the rights to the picture of a snake similar to those that infest the area in central Florida where the child’s body was found.
Roy Kronk told the jury he knew the reason for the payment.
“I was paid for a licensed picture of a snake, but I knew there would probably be an interview involved,” he said.
Kronk appeared on ABC’s “Good Morning America” for an “exclusive interview” in January.
Checkbook journalism, the practice of obtaining exclusive interviews by the roundabout method of licensing photos and videos, violates the SPJ Code of Ethics, which advises journalists to “act independently.” That includes being “wary of sources offering information for favors or money; avoid bidding for news.” Read the full SPJ Code of Ethics.
“This is no longer a developing trend. It’s a habit,” said Kevin Smith, chairman of the SPJ Ethics Committee. “Paying sources for exclusivity, under any name, calls into question the motives of the source and the news outlets.”
This brings to at least $215,000 the amount ABC has paid for exclusive information in the disappearance and death of the two-year-old in June 2008, according to its own accounts. Previous court testimony has disclosed that the network paid $200,000 as a licensing fee for Anthony family photos, money Anthony has used to pay for her legal defense. The network also paid for a three-night hotel stay for the child’s grandparents.
In March 2010, the SPJ Ethics Committee publically condemned this practice and cited examples of exclusive information purchases by ABC, NBC and CNN. Read the statement.
ABC and NBC persist in the discredited practice of checkbook journalism, paying for exclusive interviews, for the right to air photos or videos, and that usually is accompanied by an exclusive interview, as was the case with Kronk.
ABC recently confirmed to CNN’s Howard Kurtz that it had paid $10,000-$15,000 for pictures a woman sent to former U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner before she granted Chris Cuomo an exclusive interview about her interaction with the congressman, who sent her provocative pictures of himself.
NBC obtained an exclusive interview in May with a high school student who pretended to be pregnant for her senior project; the network paid license fees for footage from her high school and put the money in a trust fund for the student’s educational expenses. The student had originally planned to talk to ABC but changed her mind.
CNN admitted to paying a licensing fee for exclusive photos from a passenger who helped subdue the underwear bomber on Northwest Airlines Flight 253 on Christmas Day 2009. After that incident, the passenger, Jasper Schuringa, shopped the photo to the highest bidder, according to sources at CNN and other networks.
Last October, at its national convention, SPJ held a session dedicated specifically to checkbook journalism and invited all of the major networks to participate. No one accepted the offer, though CBS has denounced the practice.
“Money is being asked for more and more of the time,” Jeff Fager, the chairman of CBS News, told The New York Times. “If you’re in the business of having to pay people to get a story, it can’t be worth it,” he said.
Fox News said it would not be involved in the ethics session because it never pays for news.
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.