News outlets pay for exclusives

(Note: This blog was originally published on 10/23/2010 as a part of a class project for Emerson College’s New and Society class.)

Several media outlets reportedly dipped into their pocketbooks recently when some of the 33 miners rescued from a collapsed Chilean mine said they would talk to reporters for a fee.

News organizations should never pay anyone for interviews. It’s basic ethics, people.

You would think that our ethically-oriented media outlets would shake their heads at such a suggestion for checkbook journalism.

Well, you’ve guessed wrong.

Earlier this week, ABC News defended itself from accusations that it paid a miner for an exclusive interview.

ABC News acknowledged the interview in a recent New York Times article, but it claims nothing was paid for the interview.

According to the New York Times, the miners are asking for fees that range from $40 to as much as $25,000.

An ABC News spokeswoman told the Times it “licensed material” from the miner’s family.

Licensing photos and video, i.e paying, is a practice many news organizations have adopted in the race to be first in the 24-hour news cycle.

In March, accused killer Casey Anthony’s attorney revealed in a Florida courtroom that ABC News paid their client’s family $200,000 in licensing fees for videos and photos. The money was used to pay for Anthony’s legal defense, her attorneys said.

CNN reportedly paid to license a cell phone video of authorities hauling Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the alleged Christmas Day bomber, off a Chicago flight.

An interview with Jasper Schuringa, the video’s owner and a witness to the botched Christmas Day attack, came along with the video.

NBC went on the defensive last year when it was revealed that the network gave David Goldman and his son a free plane ride from Brazil to the United States after a highly-publicized international custody battle.

In a statement, the Society of Professional Journalists ethics committee chair Andy Schotz rebuked NBC: “The public could rightly assume that NBC News bought exclusive interviews and images, as well as the family’s loyalty, with an extravagant gift.”

Schotz and SPJ argued that NBC put its brand on the story when it paid for the flight and compromised its ability to report it fairly given its financial interest in how the story unfolded.

SPJ is right. The practice is misguided and stains journalism. Media outlets that engage in this behavior risk creating a market where information is not gathered, but acquired for the price.

In fact, it already exists.

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