Posts Tagged ‘Good Morning America’

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

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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