Pay For Play
March 2009

by Karen Slattery and Mark Doremus

A producer for the ABC News program "Good Morning America" reportedly put Caylee Anthony's grandparents up in an expensive hotel in December 2008, about the time that the child's remains were discovered and the search for the missing child turned into a murder investigation. Caylee's grandmother, Cindy Anthony, was the one who reported her granddaughter missing last summer. The little girl's mother now sits in an Orange County, Fla., jail on suspicion of murder.

The child's disappearance has been a cable network staple and has also attracted a good deal of attention from other mainstream media as well.

The Orlando Sentinel broke the story about the Anthonys' three-day stay in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Orlando, the city in which they live.

The news that ABC picked up the grandparents' hotel bill came to light when a judge released the transcripts of an interview with an investigator hired by the Anthonys, who told authorities that the network paid for the hotel stay.

The paper's story raised the possibility that the network was making an effort to keep its competitors away from the family at a critical juncture in the saga of the missing child.

ABC neither confirmed nor denied that possibility. The paper reported that the network refused to discuss its booking arrangements.

In the end, ABC didn't get an interview with Caylee's grandparents. Given that fact, some might argue "no harm, no foul."

But the network's actions create problems for the journalism profession and for journalists who work for corporations with deep pockets.

We know that news organizations do not generally pay for information from sources. The reason is that paying sources compromises the credibility of a news report. The source and the check-writing journalist enter into the world of quid pro quo. The person receiving the payment may slant or embellish the information in an effort to please the one writing the check.

Of course, paying sources with cold cash is just one way to reward a source for information. Assisting with book and movie deals, as well as footing the bill for hotels, transportation, laundry and the like are other, equally problematic ways to curry favor with sources.

Ethical codes caution journalists against paying sources for news because it taints the profession. The National Press Photographers Association Codes of Ethics states that photojournalists should "not pay sources or subjects or reward them materially for information or participation." The Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics urges wariness "of sources offering information for favors or money" and discourages journalists from "bidding for news."

The public benefits when journalists have fair access to information. Journalistic competition is normally a good thing. The best stories result from thorough, conscientious, insightful and energetic reporting. Asking questions, probing for information and checking (and double-checking) facts are crucial to uncovering the truth of a story, and require that all journalists have fair and open access to sources.

Journalistic competition on the basis of subterfuge, "pay for play" or dirty tricks puts the public and the profession at a disadvantage because some information may be withheld from good reporters who might otherwise be able to advance the story.

Journalists who work for rich corporations that employ these strategies and downplay the potential for harm to the profession are in a particularly difficult spot.

They are in the unenviable position of having to wrestle with divided loyalties to their bosses, their profession and to the public. Their fellow journalists depend on them to defend ethical practices to the corporate elite when the opportunity and the need arise.

The journalism profession is also harmed by actions that raise questions in the public's mind about the proper relationship between journalists and their sources. Journalists are supposed to be observing and reporting the story, not providing the physical and emotional upkeep of material witnesses in a murder investigation.

That, clearly, is best left to someone else.

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© Karen Slattery and Mark Doremus

Karen Slattery is an associate professor in the College of Communication at Marquette University. She teaches courses related to broadcast journalism, media ethics, and qualitative research methods.

Mark Doremus has a Ph.D. in Journalism and Mass Communication and a law degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he is now employed as a research administrator. He worked in television news for 13 years in various capacities, primarily as a news reporter-photographer. He still cares deeply about the press, in all its forms, and its practitioners. He met his wife and co-columnist, Karen Slattery, when they were both working in local television news.