NBC News, agreeing to pay for sky-diving footage, criticized for ‘checkbook journalism’


Mike Robinson, an instructor and safety adviser for Skydive Superior, describes the circumstances that caused a Cessna 185 and a Cessna 182 to collide in midair over Superior, Wisc. Robinson was one of the jumpers on the plane that ended up crashing. (Clint Austin/AP)
November 4, 2013

In a second episode of apparent “checkbook journalism” in a week, NBC News has locked up exclusive interviews and amateur footage of an aerial accident with a six-figure fee to a group of sky divers who survived the collision of their two small planes.

NBC’s news division has agreed to compensate the nine sky divers and two pilots who were involved in the accident for an appearance on Tuesday’s “Today” show, a story on “NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams” and a one-hour “Dateline NBC” special.

The deal involves TV interviews and footage of the stricken planes taken by some of the sky divers’ helmet cameras, according to Mike Robinson, a sky-diving instructor who was involved in the incident near Lake Superior in northwest Wisconsin.

“NBC has the exclusive right,” Robinson said. “We can do print and radio interviews, but no TV interviews [other than for NBC] for two weeks. That’s the agreement.”

Individuals with the network said the group will receive in excess of $100,000 for their participation. NBC would not confirm that figure, but the network said it paid only for use of the video. NBC said other news organizations were also bidding for the material.


The wreckage of the fuselage of a Cessna 182 aircraft owned by Skydive Superior sits in a parking lot of the Head of the Lakes Fairgrounds in Superior, Wis., Nov. 2, 2013. (Clint Austin/AP)

Mainstream news organizations typically frown on paying sources, lest the payments taint the sources’ veracity or color the news outlet’s objectivity in reporting the story. Although some news organizations, such as the National Enquirer and TMZ.com, pay for news, checkbook journalism is considered unethical by the Society of Professional Journalists and other professional news organizations.

NBC News’s agreement with the sky divers follows last week’s disclosure that the news division is negotiating an exclusive documentary deal, reportedly for more than $100,000, with the family of Hannah Anderson, the teenage girl who was kidnapped this summer by a family friend who had murdered her mother and brother.

Anderson, who survived her ordeal, already has appeared on the “Today” show and “Dateline NBC” in a series of exclusive interviews with the network.

The two deals signal a more aggressive approach to securing ratings-grabbing exclusives by Deborah Turness, NBC News’s new president. Turness joined the network in August from ITV News, Britain’s leading commercial TV network.

NBC News is under pressure to restore the ratings dominance of the “Today” show, which has fallen behind its ABC rival, “Good Morning America,” in the lucrative morning-news period. The two programs compete ferociously to book newsworthy guests, particularly those with a strong appeal to women, who comprise the majority of viewers for both shows. The competition has led to bidding wars for of-the-moment interview subjects in the past, although ABC News said it has banned the practice of paying for interviews.

In a statement, NBC News spokeswoman Ali Zelenko said, “NBC News is proud to have this remarkable footage of human survival for use across all of our platforms and broadcasts, including an hour-long ‘Dateline’ special. Our licensing of this footage is standard industry practice and is the result of a very competitive process with other major broadcast outlets.”

Robinson said that interviews with the participants also were part of the agreement with NBC News.

ABC News said it was involved in the bidding for the video, but it pulled out “as soon as it became clear that these interviews were tied directly to cash payments,” spokesman Jeffrey Schneider said. Paying for interviews “is a clear violation of our standards and ethics. We wanted to bid solely for the rights to the footage.”

The sky-diving video may be particularly valuable because the story occurred during a “sweeps” month in television, one of four quarterly periods in which ratings are used as a benchmark by local stations to set advertising rates for non-sweeps periods. TV stations typically promote their news programs heavily during sweeps months such as November and February in order to drive up viewership.

Robinson, 64, and three sky divers were seconds away from leaping out of a Cessna airplane for their final sky-dive of the day Saturday when a plane carrying another group of sky divers hit the top of their plane.

Robinson’s plane burst into flames and began to break apart as the sky divers leapt from it. The pilot of their plane ejected and used an emergency parachute to land safely as the plane spiraled downward and showered the falling divers with debris.

The pilot of the second plane, which was damaged, managed to land the plane safely to the airport.

None of the nine sky divers and two pilots were seriously injured in the accident, which is under investigation.

The dramatic footage, taken from the sky divers’ perspective, hasn’t been seen on TV yet. But, said Robinson, “I’ve seen all of it. It’s pretty dramatic.”

READ MORE:

VIDEO: Skydivers survive crash, appear on “TODAY”

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter.
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