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NBC’s Deal Raises Ethical Questions

NBC News scored a series of scoops recently when its reporters conducted the first and only TV interviews with Brett Anderson and his daughter, Hannah, the California teenager who was abducted and whose mother and brother were murdered.

In TV parlance, the Andersons were big “gets.” The interviews on the Today show, Nightly News and Dateline NBC were hailed by NBC News’ new boss, Deborah Turness, as “a major coup” in a memo to the division’s employees.

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 a 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.”

Despite a stated ban on paying sources, network news operations often find other ways to secure the exclusive cooperation of newsworthy subjects. A typical technique is to pay a source to “license” his or her personal photos or home movies. CNN, for example, was among several news organizations that paid a Dutch tourist $18,000 for cellphone images of the arrest of the alleged “underwear bomber” who tried to blow up an international jetliner on Christmas Day in 2010. CNN aired an interview with the tourist, Jasper Schuringa, who helped subdue the alleged bomber. The network said the interview was unrelated to its payments for Schuringa’s photos.

Such “licensing” agreements —which are almost never disclosed to viewers — enable news outlets to claim they didn’t pay for interviews.

That appears to be what NBC News is doing with the Andersons, said Kevin Z. Smith, the chairman of the ethics committee of the Society of Professional Journalists. “No matter how they couch it, they’re offering money in exchange for an exclusive story,” he said. “The networks have figured out new and different approaches” to paying sources.

In fact, NBC News and ABC News acknowledged that they paid the families of three rescued Chilean miners who were featured on Good Morning America and the Today show in 2010. The networks didn’t disclose how much they paid, but said on the air that they had “licensed” home video footage used in their stories.

Lawyers for Casey Anthony, the Florida woman acquitted of killing her young daughter, revealed during a court appearance in 2010 that ABC News paid $200,000 for her cooperation in its coverage of the story.

ABC News subsequently said it has banned the practice of paying for stories, a position it reiterated again this week.

Hannah Anderson said she was abducted by DiMaggio, who police say killed Hannah’s mother and younger brother in Southern California before fleeing with the teenager to a remote corner of Idaho. After a multistate manhunt, DiMaggio was killed by FBI agents. Anderson wasn’t physically injured.

It’s unclear when NBC’s documentary on the case will air, or on which network. (NBC’s parent company, Comcast Corp., owns multiple channels on cable and broadcast TV, and Peacock often sells programs to unaffiliated networks). A spokeswoman for the Andersons did not return calls and e-mails seeking comment.

Hannah Anderson has given two “exclusive” interviews to NBC, the first conducted in San Diego in August shortly after DiMaggio’s death and the second in early October in New York, with her father seated by her side. An NBC representative said she agreed to speak to the network because “we were the only news outlet that offered Hannah an opportunity to thank the rescuers before her mother and brother’s funeral.”

McBride, of the Poynter Institute, noted that fierce competition for big “gets” — particularly among the network morning shows — creates incentives to offer money to news sources. But if the practice can’t be eliminated, she said, the next best step is to disclose it to viewers.

“They could be transparent about the decisions they’ve made,” McBride said. “There are ways to create transparency mechanisms,” such as a network website that discloses how much was paid to which source and for what purpose.

Of course, she added, such disclosures might have the perverse effect of driving up the value of interviews and photos for the networks and others.