Posted at 11:56 AM ET, 06/30/2011

Casey Anthony trial: The worst kind of checkbook journalism?


Casey Anthony stands as the jury enters the courtroom before the continuation of her murder trial at the Orange County Courthouse Thursday, June 30, 2011. (Red Huber - AP)
Enough ink has been spilled about how the Casey Anthony murder trial has become our national obsession, with all the makings of a good soap opera, and a media circus that has attracted reporters from far and wide like moths to a flame.

But Tuesday, testimony by a meter reader revealed just how infatuated we all had become.

Roy Kronk, who eventually found the body of 2-year-old Caylee Anthony, had in his possession a photo of a dead rattlesnake that had been discovered in the same area Caylee was located several months before. It was initially thought that the snake may have impeded a police search for the body, but now it appears it hardly had any impact at all.

And yet ABC news paid a whopping $15,000 for that snake photo. That’s $15,000 out of the total $215,000 the network has paid for Casey Anthony scoops over the course of the investigation and trial, according to Poynter. Two hundred thousand dollars of that money was paid to Anthony’s family before she was arrested. That money was used for her legal defense fund.

Jeffrey Schneider, senior vice president of ABC News, says that most of those payments were made in 2008 and early 2009, before ABC News announced it would tell its viewers when it was paying a pretty penny for a scoop, which networks calls a “license agreement.”

Schneider argues that these fees are just a tiny part of an enormous news budget, and that to “describe our work in terms of those licenses is to miss the entire forest for a tree.”

ABC correspondent Chris Cuomo has defended this “checkbook journalism,” too, calling it “the state of play right now.” Paul Friedman, ex-senior vice president at CBS News, earlier said that “If we all drew a line again, maybe we could stop this. … But that’s probably hopelessly naive. It’s out of the bottle.”

ABC also paid Meagan Broussard for photos she sent Anthony Weiner earlier this month, which caused conservative commentator Ann Coulter to remark, “You guys own the Weiner story.” Literally.

The network recently paid for family home videos of Jaycee Dugard, a California woman who was kidnapped and held captive for 18 years.

Which begs the obvious question: Is checkbook journalism really acceptable these days? And is it more acceptable to pay for Broussard’s photos to get a scoop because they were an integral part of the scandal that led to the congressman’s resignation? And less acceptable to pay for a silly snake photo that has almost nothing to do with the trial?

Poynter, an institute for journalism that seeks to “help journalists do their jobs better,” has argued that checkbook journalism isn’t okay in almost any situation. In an article entitled, “5 reasons broadcasters pay licensing fees and why it corrupts journalism,” Julie Moos writes that paying licensing fees for information or photos causes corruptions in two forms.

“The financial arrangement may encourage a source to say things that are untrue and it may encourage them to dramatize the truth,” she writes.

Whether Kronk dramatized the truth as he testified about Caylee Anthony is unknown. But he did admit in court that he licensed the photo because, “I was paid for a licensed picture of a snake, but I knew there would probably be an interview involved,” which seems to change things.

Some sites, such as Gawker, are forthright about their practice of paying for stories, despite whatever ethical problems they might pose. “Our rule of thumb,” Gawker media chief Nick Denton wrote, “is $10 per thousand new visitors,” or $10,000 per million.

Well, at least he’s got it down to a science.

The Post’s Paul Farhi wrote last year that “while the ‘respectable’ media shunned the practice,” (The Post, the New York Times, and the Associated Press have all said they do not pay for stories), “ the reality is that money often elicits important information that might never be obtained through traditional means.”

Farhi gives the example of when the National Enquirer paid for information that helped link former senator John Edwards (D- N.C.) to his mistress and their baby. Edwards was recently indicted for using illegal campaign donations to conceal his mistress.

But Moos insists it isn’t too late to return the genie to the bottle. And she suggests that transparency may be the key to doing so.

“In the rare instance when you do pay a source for material, ‘show me the receipt,’ as my colleague Jill Geisler puts it,” Moos writes. “Tell readers exactly what you paid, for what items and why, including indirect costs such as travel, hotel and meals. If use of the material is exclusive, say that.”

ABC recently started to disclose to viewers what scoops they pay for. According to Moos’s criteria, that’s a start.

More from the Washington Post

BlogPost: Watch a live stream from court

The AP: Casey Anthony acquitted of murder in death of her 2-year-old daughter Caylee

BlogPost: Casey Anthony verdict: Not guilty

By  |  11:56 AM ET, 06/30/2011

 
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