But now NBC News plans to take its relationship with the Andersons a step further — into potentially questionable ethical territory.
The network confirmed Tuesday that it is in negotiations with the Andersons to produce “long-form” programming about Hannah Anderson’s abduction in August by a family friend, James Lee DiMaggio Jr. Sources at the network say the Andersons could receive more than $100,000 for their cooperation in the making of a documentary or some other nonfiction program. NBC won’t confirm the figure.
The would-be deal raises an age-old question: Is it ethical for news organizations to pay the people they cover?
This is not the first time a mainstream news outlet has cut a deal to pay subjects of stories; ABC News, for example, has done so in the past, but has since prohibited the practice, which is commonplace in Britain. But in the United States, paying the subjects is typically considered a breach of journalistic standards for several reasons: The money could entice a source to exaggerate the story; it could also compel a news organization to tell only its “partner’s” side of the story, ignoring information that impeaches or undercuts the dramatic tale in which the news organization has an investment.
“You don’t want to give your sources a motivation to distort the truth, and paying them could do that,” said Kelly McBride, an ethics specialist at the Poynter Institute, a journalism-education organization.
Further, readers or viewers might doubt a story’s credibility if they knew a key source had accepted money to be a part of it.
For these reasons, most mainstream news organizations prohibit what has long been derided within the profession as “checkbook journalism,” but which is practiced by such outlets as the National Enquirer, TMZ.com and Gawker.com.
NBC News said it didn’t pay 16-year-old Hannah Anderson or her father for their cooperation in the interviews it aired in August and October. “NBC News never pays for interviews,” said Ali Zelenko, a spokeswoman, in an interview.
But an NBC News subsidiary, Peacock Productions, is working out final details of a financial agreement with the Andersons. Peacock produces documentaries and specials, featuring NBC News journalists. Among others, it was behind a recent MSNBC program called “Hubris: Selling the Iraq War,” hosted by Rachel Maddow, and a chronicle of actress Valerie Harper’s struggle with cancer, “Valerie’s Story,” hosted by Meredith Vieira on NBC.
NBC News said it saw no journalistic issues in securing the Andersons’ cooperation for a documentary. The network said it isn’t paying the father and daughter for interviews on the project. Instead, the representative said, the network is compensating them for the use of “footage and personal material.”