‘Checkbook Journalism’ Leads to Ethics Questions

Are NBC's and ABC's licensing fees ruining journalistic integrity?

As ABC and NBC continue their endless competition for viewers, both networks have increasingly been in the spotlight for their willingness to open their checkbooks for a juicy interview, leading to questioning of the networks’ journalistic ethics.

Last week, it was confirmed that ABC paid between $10,000 and $15,000 in "licensing fees" for photos belonging to Meagan Broussard, one of the recipients of Rep. Anthony Weiner infamous “sexts.” Meanwhile, the network also secured an exclusive interview with Jaycee Lee Dugard, a California woman held captive for 18 years. The network said it hadn’t paid any fees for the interview—but it had paid a six-figure sum for rights to Dugard’s home movies.

The list goes on. From private planes to trust fund deposits, networks are finding ways to entice potential interviewees without actually paying for the interviews—a practice that The Poynter Institute claims is corrupting journalism: "When news organizations pay for information, it hurts journalism’s credibility. The practice invites viewers to question the reliability of the stories we tell."

Even some network execs are calling the trend “at best a questionable breach of ethics,” says The New York Times, like CBS News chairman Jeff Fager, who noted that subjects are increasingly demanding payments. “Money is being asked for more and more of the time,” he said. “If you’re in the business of having to pay people to get a story, it can’t be worth it.”

CBS, notably, isn’t a strong competitor in morning television, where NBC’s Today and ABC’s Good Morning America routinely battle for exclusives. Execs from both networks denied claims of six-figure payments when interviewed by the Times, while also pointing fingers at each other in an attempt to shift the blame.

But as long as big payments lead to big bookings and even bigger ratings, it’s unlikely that these networks will let something as minor as "journalistic ethics"  get in the way of a profitable story.