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Thursday, August 4, 2011
Ethics Toolbox

‘Licensing fee’ is checkbook journalism

By Mike Farrell

Editor’s Note: Since this column was written, ABC has announced that it will no longer engage in the practice of checkbook journalism, though it did leave open the possibly of an “extraordinary circumstance” leading to the use of licensing fees.

Is it time to wave the white flag, hold our noses and get over it — “it” being the increasing practice of news organizations paying money to news sources?

That’s what it sounded like ABC’s Chris Cuomo was advising us when Howard Kurtz interviewed him in June on “Reliable Sources.” The topic was the so-called licensing fee ABC paid — $10,000 to $15,000 — to obtain pictures related to the moral failure of Congressman Anthony Weiner.

“The commercial exigencies of the business reach into every aspect of reporting now … I could have said, ‘Don’t do it.’ … It is the state of play right now. I wish it were not. I wish money was not in the game. But you know, it’s going to go somewhere else. You know someone else is going to pay for the same things.”

Everybody’s doing it, so we’re doing it, too. Sounds like something a 14-year-old would say after getting caught smoking a cigarette.

What Cuomo failed to point out is that the networks have created this situation; they started handing out money for exclusives, and now people with stories are expecting it. The networks have become addicted to their own newsgathering method as they fight for ratings.

That method is addressed unequivocally in the SPJ Code of Ethics: Under the principle of “act independently,” the Code admonishes journalists to “Be wary of sources offering information for favors or money; avoid bidding for news.”

The practice has a long history. A surviving member of the Titanic crew was paid $1,000 for his story. Life magazine paid for stories from the NASA astronauts. CBS paid former Nixon adviser H.R. Haldeman $100,000 for an interview.

The recent examples of this practice are many and varied. Two of the more outrageous occurred during the past three years. NBC sent a private jet to Brazil in December 2009 to ferry home a New Jersey father who was granted custody of his son after the boy’s mother died. The network managed an exclusive interview with the father and video footage during that private ride.

ABC paid $200,000 in August 2008 to Casey Anthony, subject of a high-profile murder trial, for exclusive rights to family photos and home videos. The network also taped interviews with the family but insisted it paid only for access to the images. Anthony was found not guilty of murder charges this summer.

The question then is clear: Is there anything wrong with this practice of paying a “license fee” for photos and receiving an exclusive interview?

The answer — 15 years after the admonition against checkbook journalism was added to the SPJ Code and after rapidly changing technology has shaken the media world to its foundations — is still emphatically yes.

“When you pay for a story, you’re making a contract with the person who supplies it, and that means you’re no longer acting independently,” SPJ President Hagit Limor told The Washington Post last fall.

Make no mistake; interactions between a reporter and a source are not always pristine. Sometimes there are mutual benefits. The reporter gets a story, a scoop, and the source gets publicity, prestige or credit for an idea. Sometimes the reporter is being used. But when money changes hands, the value of the story itself changes — the media outlet suddenly has more invested in a story, and that requires a dividend in terms of news value that will justify the payment. That means no one is acting independently.

The almighty dollar also can affect the information the reporter is chasing. “People will say anything in pursuit of money. The public should assume you’re reporting something because it’s true, not because someone received money to say it,” Limor said.

What happens to journalism when sources agree to interviews only when they are paid? Media ethicist John Michael Kittross has argued that “treating news as a commodity eventually will destroy journalism as a public benefit.”

The “everybody’s doing it” crowd should ponder the journalist’s obligation to inform the public and to preserve a free and independent media. Chris Cuomo, professional that he is, may have played a role in toppling a congressman with that interview, but he also may have taken one more step toward making the news a “pay-to-play” operation.

Mike Farrell is a member of the SPJ Ethics Committee and a journalism professor at the University of Kentucky’s School of Journalism and Telecommunications. He is the director of the Scripps Howard First Amendment Center. He was a newspaper reporter and editor for 20 years.

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