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.