Archive for the ‘checkbook journalism’ Category


Theater of the Absurd: Cable News Contributors

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Few stories are more common during election years than controversies surrounding cable news contributors, who are paid to come on air at the beck and call of news organizations.

Fox News let Newt Gingrich go earlier this week as reports surfaced that he may be Donald Trump’s running mate on the GOP’s White House ticket. Social media then erupted Wednesday after a website reported Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s former campaign manager, is receiving severance payments from the campaign while being employed by CNN.

The concern is usually that these cable news channels crossed an ethical line by employing people who are either too cozy with candidates or may be considering their own run for office.

But to chastise Fox News, CNN or MSNBC for employing contributors too close to presidential campaigns excuses the fact that these cable news channels are already paying newsmakers for interviews – also known as checkbook journalism.

As speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives for four years, Gingrich held one of the most powerful positions in the country. As Trump’s campaign manager, Lewandowski was one of the closest advisers to a person who may become the next president.

Fox News and CNN are guaranteed almost exclusive access to newsworthy information by signing up Gingrich and Lewandowski, respectively, as contributors.

The SPJ Code of Ethics says that ethical journalists should not pay for access to news.

There are a few ethical issues surrounding checkbook journalism. One is that offering payments will lead people to provide information to make a few dollars instead of speaking when it’s in everyone’s best interest. There is also the question of whether the information that is paid for is true or just what the source thinks the journalists wants to hear.

As Jack Shafer pointed out years ago, there are also practical reasons why journalists shouldn’t pay for news.

Calling out any news organization for checkbook journalism is a bit futile, because many regularly pay sources. Some offer money outright while others are more inventive. SPJ does point out egregious examples of checkbook journalism from time to time.

Chastising cable news channels and their contributors for being too cozy with campaigns is beyond futile, however. The cries are too late. By the time a former speaker of the house, campaign manager, politician or other newsmaker serving as a paid contributor becomes too close to the news being discussed, the journalism ethics train already left the station.


Andrew M. Seaman is the chair of the Society’s ethics committee.

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Friday’s Fiasco: Journalism Can and Should be Better

MSNBC's Kerry Sanders on Friday. (via screenshot of MSNBC.com)

MSNBC’s Kerry Sanders on Friday. (via screenshot of MSNBC.com)

A flood of people and equipment poured through the door of Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik’s apartment on Friday.


The couple murdered 14 people and injured another 26 just two days earlier at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, California.

Carrying microphones, lights, cameras and any other electronics capable of broadcasting, people raced through the apartment to capture any detail of the space once occupied by mass murderers.

MSNBC’s Kerry Sanders was one of the first reporters to enter the apartment. He was soon combing through items and holding up pictures of children, identification cards and other objects to the camera. Andrea Mitchell, who was anchoring the network at the time, grew uneasy and asked to cut away, according to CNN.

Sanders was not alone, of course. Reporters from most national news organizations like CNN, CBS and The New York Times were present along with reporters from local news organizations. They were soon joined by random people from the neighborhood.

In the wake of the reporters converging on the apartment like a swarm of locusts, people were outraged. The reporters looked like leeches, and served as a visual explanation of why only four in 10 people trust the media.

Those outraged people were correct.

For the most part, what happened on air Friday from that apartment was not journalism. Instead, what happened was the type of sensationalized and voyeuristic nonsense the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics shuns.

From beginning to end, the events on Friday violated what SPJ considers the profession’s best practices.

  • While there is still debate over how the media gained access to the apartment, several reports say a crew from Inside Edition paid for access to the apartment. A journalist with even a shred of dignity doesn’t consider paying for news, and should call out those who engage in checkbook journalism.Paying for news sets a dangerous precedent, and allows news to go to the highest bidder. Readers, viewers and listeners should also question the accuracy and integrity of any news stories purchased outright or through other backdoor fees.
  • The journalists who rushed into the apartment should have also made the ethical decision and turned off their cameras. “Balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort,” says SPJ’s code. Journalists should know going into an apartment cleared by the Federal Bureau of Investigation was not likely to yield any significant evidence. There was no need for viewers or listeners to be exposed to that scene as it unfolded. As SPJ’s code also reminds journalists, legal access to information differs from the ethical justification to publish.
  • The reporters inside the apartment should have also realized that no good could have come from broadcasting random artifacts. The people in those pictures and named on those documents may have no connection to Friday’s events, but are now linked and possibly in danger thanks to the recklessness of the reporters.

MSNBC, who took the brunt of the blowback on Friday, issued a brief mea culpa (while also patting itself on the back) on Friday.

Meanwhile, Fox News and CNN also issued statements that they had been allowed in the apartment, but were careful not to show pictures and other documents.

All of the journalists who were broadcasting live from the scene on Friday – including those on social media – are all in the same boat, however. They should have known better than to run into the apartment while broadcasting without knowing what they would find.

The best advice would be for the offenders to implement new editorial strategies to prevent these kinds of mistakes in the future, but I can only write that advice so many times. Instead, it’s imperative that other journalists call out unethical journalism whenever and wherever possible.

Journalists need to realize that MSNBC, Inside Edition and other news organizations that take part in this type of cavalier coverage are harming all journalists. Whether we like it or not, cable networks are often the face of journalism for the American people. When they screw up, we all suffer.


Andrew M. Seaman is chair of SPJ’s ethics committee.

*This post was updated at 10 a.m. on December 9th to fix a typo in the penultimate paragraph.
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Paying for information

In today’s changing information market, it’s sometimes difficult to tell what is news and what is entertainment.

With the recent, rapid changes in gathering and reporting information, the mainstream news media no longer are the exclusive sources of “news.” The public gets its information from many sources: cable and network television, newspapers and magazine, blogs, web sites on home and laptop computers, and on a multitude of hand-held devices. Information is everywhere.

The mixture is such that the lines between news/information and entertainment are sometimes blurred. In the confusion that this blurring has caused, the ethical issue of “checkbook journalism” has stirred complaints and excuse

The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics and mainstream news media say news should not be purchased. However, entertainment media frequently pay for exclusive interviews and stories. Sometimes such payment is called a “licensing fee.”

Cable and network television present many “shows” that may be news and may be entertainment. Note that TV calls such programs “shows”:  the Rick Sanchez Show, the Dylan Ratigan Show, the Sean Hannity Show, the Today show, Good Morning America, etc. They are called shows, but they also are sources of news/information.

If, for example, the Today show pays a “licensing fee” for an exclusive interview with a person in the news, is that checkbook journalism or merely a standard practice in the entertainment business of “licensing” an exclusive television presentation?

Does paying for an interview or story diminish its credibility?

When is information news and when is it entertainment?

Here’s a brief quiz involving a hypothetical news/information situation:
A woman is lost for several days in a wilderness and is rescued by a search party in a helicopter. Which of the following different situations would you say are not ethical and why?
• A freelance journalist is at the scene when the rescued woman steps from the helicopter. An area newspaper buys her exclusive story and pictures.
• Several area news media buy the freelance journalist’s story and pictures.
• The freelance journalist invites the rescued woman to stay with her while waiting for family to arrive. In her home, the journalist interviews the woman and an area TV station buys the video.
• An area newspaper pays a freelance journalist to report on and take pictures at a press conference by the rescued woman.
• An area television station buys an exclusive story and video from a member of the rescue crew.
• An area television station pays for travel and accommodations for the rescued woman to appear in an exclusive interview on its morning talk show.
• A national magazine buys a story written by the rescued woman.
• A national network TV show flies the woman to New York for an exclusive appearance on its morning show. It pays all the woman’s expenses – hotel, meals, etc. It also broadcasts excerpts from the interview on its network newscasts.
• A national book publisher buys exclusive rights to the rescued woman’s story.
• A major studio buys movie rights to the rescued woman’s story.
• A national newspaper offers to pay the rescued woman for an exclusive interview.
• A national supermarket publication bids for and wins exclusive rights to the rescued woman’s story.

All the above involve some type of financial transaction. Are there ethical differences, and if so, what are they? What would you do in each of the above situations? Ask your friends – what they would do? And remember, ethics does not always result in black or white solutions.

Paul R. LaRocque, Ethics Committee member

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Yet again, ABC has disclosure problems

Maybe ABC is trying to improve — maybe — but it has miles to go.

In 2008, the network paid $200,000 to the family of Casey Anthony — accused of murdering her daughter — for “an extensive library of photos and home video for use by our broadcasts, platforms, affiliates and international partners.”

Not only is it highly questionable ethically to pay a source while covering her, ABC compounded the matter by keeping it quiet for two years and continuing to report on the case.

The SPJ Ethics Committee chastised ABC in March 2010, shortly after the payment was revealed during a court hearing.

ABC denied that the $200,000 was an enticement for Casey Anthony to talk to the network. “No use of the material was tied to any interview,” the network said in a statement.

When the SPJ Ethics Committee asked ABC spokeswoman Cathie Levine about the $200,000 payment, she reiterated that it was not for an interview. It was for licensing exclusive rights, which she said is a common practice for broadcast news organizations.

We responded: “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.”

In talking to us, Levine said ABC stood by its decision to pay Casey Anthony’s family $200,000, but conceded that the payment should have been mentioned as the network covered the story.

“We should have disclosed it to our audience,” she told us, promising that disclosure would become the policy from then on.

Fast forward to several days ago. ABC aired an exclusive interview with Casey Anthony’s parents, George and Cindy Anthony, on “Good Morning America” and, once again, didn’t mention the $200,000 payment.

After hearing about this from another Ethics Committee member, I e-mailed Levine to find out what happened to the new policy or if this latest failure was another oversight.

She replied: “We did interview George and Cindy Anthony on GMA – we haven’t licensed anything from either of them so there was nothing to disclose.”

Is ABC actually trying to claim that a $200,000 payment to Casey Anthony is in no way tied to an exclusive interview it scored with her parents? And that it couldn’t at least be perceived that way?

Perhaps it’s the Ethics Committee’s fault for not spelling it out crystally clear.

Forevermore, ANY reporting the network does on this story is inextricably tied to the $200,000 payment. ALL future reports should disclose that the network has a business relationship with the subject of the story.

Obviously, this isn’t where I detected a glimmer of possible improvement at ABC. It was something else Levine wrote in her last reply to me:

“The policy we discussed has not changed – in case you didn’t see 20/20 on Friday night, we made a disclosure in our interview with Melody Granadillo as we licensed material from her.”

Because I’m sometimes a scandal behind, I had to look up who Granadillo was. It turns out she’s a former girlfriend of Joran van der Sloot, who is suspected of murdering one woman and was questioned several years ago about the disappearance of another.

ABC’s story previewing its “20/20” report mentions that Granadillo kept mementos about van der Sloot and says: “Granadillo licensed a selection of these materials to ABC News.”

There it is: another weak ABC disclosure.

“Licensed”? Did ABC pay Granadillo? How much? What were the terms?

Why did the network feel the need to again breach basic journalism ethics?

And is it just a coincidence that ABC got an “exclusive interview” with Granadillo as part of the business transaction?

ABC isn’t alone in this charade of license payments and exclusive access. Other TV networks are using this same shell game of tortured logic to claim they don’t pay for interviews.

I look forward to the day when there’s real improvement.

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