ABC News is facing sharp criticism over the disclosure that it paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to a Florida woman who now stands accused of killing her own daughter.
The $200,000 payment in August 2008 to Casey Anthony was used for exclusive rights to reproduce family photographs and videotape of her then-missing 2-year-old, Caylee.
The pictures and footage were used on Sept. 5, 2008, as the heart of a story on ABC's Good Morning America and a full-hour treatment later that night on the prime-time newsmagazine 20/20. Casey Anthony was charged with child neglect and endangerment that day. The next month, she was indicted by a grand jury on charges of murder.
Reaction in journalism circles Friday was swift and unforgiving.
"I regard it as a totally unethical journalistic practice to pay people for access that way," former NBC News President Lawrence K. Grossman said.
"This is the worst example of what has become a common practice," former ABC News anchor Aaron Brown, the Walter Cronkite professor of journalism at Arizona State University, said by e-mail. "Even if you are OK with skirting the ethical edges some of the time by buying pictures from principals, this seems way over that line."
All the major networks' news divisions have rules against paying people for interviews. Yet many of them bend those rules as they chase big stories. For example, NBC News recently flew a man back from Brazil with his son on the jet of its corporate owner after an international custody battle. He soon appeared on NBC's Today show.
But Anthony's $200,000 payout was remarkably large and undisclosed to viewers. Several ABC News staffers speaking to NPR on condition of anonymity said they were just as appalled as journalists outside the network.
The disclosure occurred only Thursday in a state court in Florida. In explaining to a judge why Anthony needed help in paying legal bills, her attorney, Jose Baez, had to explain publicly where her past funds came from.
ABC News declined repeated requests for interviews. But the network released a two-sentence statement confirming it had paid Anthony for exclusive access to the family's home videos and photographs. ABC noted it received no interview with her.
Lack Of Disclosure
Yet Grossman said such distinctions are not particularly compelling. He said it's galling to learn of such a large payment so soon after the announcement that ABC was slashing hundreds of news jobs to save money.
Several journalists said ABC's failure to tell viewers of the payment for the pictures was an ethical lapse.
"I think they should say exactly what they did — whom they paid, what they paid," said former Washington Post ombudsman Geneva Overholser, director of the School of Journalism at the USC Annenberg School for Communication. "They should give their reasoning for paying."
Overholser said that as an editor, she doesn't like checkbook journalism. Interviewees can tailor what they say for money and so it may create the incentive for a splashy tale where none exists. But she said ABC's clear-cut ethical transgression was in its lack of disclosure.
"The fundamental ethic in this case is transparency," Overholser said. "To me, if ABC had been forthright about having made payments then viewers could judge for themselves."
In September 2008, ABC had its chance to be transparent when anchor Chris Cuomo spoke to Elizabeth Vargas on Good Morning America during a story on Caylee and her mother's questionable behavior:
Cuomo: Who bailed her out this time?
Vargas: We're told it's a production company out in Tennessee, perhaps, that might have been interested in buying the rights to her story, her personal story. This is not an inconsiderable amount of money: half a million dollars bail each time.
But Vargas never told her viewers that only days earlier ABC had done pretty much the same thing.