ABC’s Payment to Casey Anthony Raises Questions about Ethics, Checkbook Journalism

ABC News has admitted that it paid accused murderer Casey Anthony $200,000 in exchange for exclusive rights to video and photos. The network denies that the payments also included agreements for interviews. 

The revelation came Thursday in an Orlando court hearing aimed at trying to determine if Anthony is broke and needs financial help to mount a defense.

The ABC News payments were made in August 2008 while Casey Anthony was under investigation but not yet charged with the first-degree murder of her toddler, Caylee Anthony. A grand jury indicted the mother in October 2008.

ABC stations have repeatedly aired the images and video but have not, until now, revealed the long-rumored financial arrangement behind them. Anthony’s lawyers told the judge about the ABC payment in a closed door hearing last fall. Thursday, the judge ordered the information be made public in open court.

Background on the testimony

You can watch the testimony on WFTV’s Web site. Move to 15:18 on the video time line to hear Jose Baez, Anthony’s lead attorney, say his client had been paid $200,000:

Baez: $200,000 came from a deal that was done by my client with the American Broadcasting Companies.

A prosecutor asked: From where, sir?

Baez: ABC.

Prosecutor: ABC News?

Baez: Yes.

Prosecutor: And that money’s been paid?

Baez: Yes.

Prosecutor: And there’s no other deal for any future monies coming from ABC News?

Baez: No. And I’ve heard the recent rumors … and the recent news reports, but those are 100 percent completely false.

Judge Stan Strickland: Since we have referenced the rumors about the money to come …

Baez: Apparently there is some rumor that was being spread that apparently I’m supposed to get $700,000 at trial.

You can also watch WFTV’s raw video outside the courthouse, where a reporter asks Baez: (at 00:45 on the time line):

Reporter: What did ABC get for their $200,000?

Baez: Those were for licensing of photos and nothing else.

In a related story, Mediabistro’s “TV Newser” reported that “Last February (2009), court documents showed ABC News paid for a three-night hotel stay at a Central Florida Ritz-Carlton for Casey’s parents George and Cindy Anthony.”

The ethical implications of the $200,000 payment

ABC News didn’t disclose what it did. To me, that presents a clear ethical conflict. 

The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics can be applied to this situation. It says journalists should:

  • “Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.
  • “Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.
  • “Disclose unavoidable conflicts.
  • “Deny favored treatment to advertisers and special interests and resist their pressure to influence news coverage.
  • “Be wary of sources offering information for favors or money; avoid bidding for news.”

Some newsrooms, such as the San Antonio Express-News, have an even stronger ethics policy. The paper clearly tells its journalists “Don’t pay for news items.” 

I asked Kelly McBride, Poynter’s ethics group leader, what she thought of ABC’s payment. She responded via e-mail:

“It sounds to me like a pretty lucrative photo licensing deal. I don’t know how much [is typical] when they really have to license photos, but $200,000 is pretty expensive.

“I question all of these over-the-top licensing arrangements because you are essentially paying for a source to talk to you and you are going around the rules that say you are not allowed to do that.

“It gets so muddled because it’s just dishonest by nature to have these wink-wink nod-nod deals where we are saying we are licensing for the photos and not paying for her participation in the story. That is such a challenge to my sensibilities.” 


I also asked my colleague Jill Geisler, Poynter’s leadership and management group leader and a long-time news director, for her input. She wrote:

“Checkbook journalism may score exclusives, which news organizations inevitably tout. Why then, do those news outlets routinely withhold information from readers and viewers about the financial deals behind the stories? Might detailed disclosures lead the public to question — even challenge — those arrangements? If leaders of traditional, tabloid or new media put dollars into the pockets of their sources, they should attach itemized receipts to their reports.”

In December 2009, the Society of Professional Journalists came down hard on another major network — NBC News — for “checkbook journalism.” In that case, SPJ said:

“The news media’s duty is to report news, not help create it. The race to be first should not involve buying — directly or indirectly — interviews, an unseemly practice that raises questions of neutrality, integrity and credibility.”

‘” ‘Mixing financial and promotional motives with an impartial search for truth stains honest, ethical reporting,’ [Andy Schotz, SPJ Ethics Committee Chairman] said. ‘Checkbook journalism has no place in the news business.’ “

In 1999, The Columbia Journalism Review took a look at how journalists have paid for interviews and information over the decades. Look at this passage:

“The New York Times scooped the competition with an exclusive interview with the Titanic wireless operator by forking over $1,000 for his story in 1912. Two decades later, the Hearst newspaper chain paid the legal bills of the defendant in the Lindbergh baby kidnapping case to ensure scoops during the trial. In the 1960s, Life caused a minor flap among journalists when it paid the original Mercury astronauts for their stories.

“By the time Watergate rolled around, the television networks got involved. CBS News paid Nixon White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman for his story. Shortly after leaving office, both Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger signed million-dollar contracts with NBC to serve as exclusive “adviser-consultants” in news specials.

“Checkbook journalism flourished during the O.J. Simpson saga, with tabloid newspapers and TV shows writing the checks. Even minor players raked in cash for interviews. A National Enquirer editor went on “Larry King Live” with a $1 million check to make an unsuccessful public plea for Simpson friend Al Cowlings to tell his story of the infamous Bronco chase. “

Here are some related questions to consider. Share your thoughts by commenting on this story.

  • Should news organizations ever pay a crime suspect for photos or video, no matter how much the payment?
  • Is it a journalism organization’s obligation to disclose if or how much it paid a source?
  • Is the old “we don’t pay sources” standard now so old-fashioned that it no longer applies to journalism?

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