NBC News to pay Reeva Steenkamp’s family for interviews

NBC News has agreed to pay the family of Reeva Steenkamp, the South African woman killed by Olympic runner Oscar Pistorius, for its cooperation in a series of interviews. Here's a look at a few other times NBC News pulled out its checkbook. (Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

NBC News has agreed to pay the family of Reeva Steenkamp, the South African woman killed by Olympic sprinter Oscar Pistorius, for its cooperation in a series of interviews.

The deal is the latest instance of pay-to-play, or “checkbook journalism,” by NBC, which has lined up a series of other newsworthy individuals by offering, in some cases, more than $100,000 for their cooperation.

The practice of paying sources is routine among European and American tabloid journalists but is considered ethically questionable by mainstream organizations, which usually shun it. Critics say such payments may induce a news source to dramatize or distort an account. It also can create a conflict of interest that could introduce bias into the reporting of a story by putting an otherwise independent news organization into a financial partnership with a source.

NBC’s “Today” program featured an interview with June Steenkamp, Reeva’s mother, on Tuesday, billing it as “exclusive.”Reeva Steenkamp was shot to death by Pistorius, her boyfriend, in his home in South Africa early last year.

Pistorius achieved worldwide fame by competing in the 2012 Olympics 400-meter sprint with prosthetic legs, which earned him the nickname “the Blade Runner.” He has said he shot Steenkamp after mistaking her for a burglar. He has been charged with murder by prosecutors; his trial began Monday in Pretoria, South Africa.

As the murder trial of Oscar Pistorius goes on, here is a brief timeline of what you need to know about the famous athlete -- from his Olympic appearances to the death of his girlfriend. (Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

NBC News spokeswoman Ali Zelenko said Tuesday that the British unit of Peacock Productions, an NBC News subsidiary, paid “a very modest licensing fee” to the Steenkamp family for its cooperation. The fee, which she declined to disclose, will cover “materials” that will be used in three documentaries that Peacock is producing “for various outside clients,” she said.

She declined to identify the clients and had no comment on how “Today’s” interview with June Steenkamp came about.

Since last year, NBC has aired a series of exclusive interviews by offering cash payments and other inducements to people who have suddenly become newsworthy.

For example, the network signed a six-figure deal with teenage California kidnapping victim Hannah Anderson and her father, Brett, last fall. NBC featured the Andersons on “Today,” on “NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams” and in a highly sympathetic “Dateline” report, and also said it would produce long-form programming about the Andersons’ ordeal through Peacock Productions.

In November, NBC’s news division agreed to pay nine sky divers and two pilots who survived a spectacular midair accident $100,000 for appearances on the “Today” show and stories on “NBC Nightly News” and “Dateline.”

NBC News appears to have taken a more aggressive approach to securing the biggest “gets” under its new president, Deborah Turness, who joined the network in August from ITV News, Britain’s leading commercial TV network.

NBC says it pays sources only to license home video, photographs and other personal material and does not pay for interviews. However, one of the skydivers involved in the accident last fall, Mike Robinson, said at the time that the group’s agreement with NBC gave the network exclusivity on TV interviews for a two-week period.

Graphic: Was model’s death mistake or murder? What “Blade Runner” Olympian says happened the night he shot his girlfriend.

The arrangements are only vaguely described to viewers and sometimes not disclosed at all. When the skydivers appeared on “Today,” the program said NBC News had “licensed” their footage “exclusively,” but it didn’t mention any specific financial arrangements.

Peacock’s British unit is managed by Steve Anderson, who has produced three documentaries on the Pistorius case for the BBC, TLC and Britain’s Channel 5. The latter documentary, entitled “Why Did Oscar Pistorius Kill Our Daughter?,” featured a “world exclusive” interview with Steenkamp’s parents. Anderson joined NBC in September.

Network bookers typically compete against each other for interviews that can help boost ratings. In NBC’s case, the network is under intense pressure to overtake “Good Morning America,” the ABC program that ended “Today’s” long reign as the top-rated morning news program, the most lucrative period for network news divisions. The rivalry has led to bidding wars for noteworthy interview subjects, although ABC News said it has banned the practice of paying for interviews.

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter.
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