Knight Center
Knight Center


Coverage of disgraced congressman renews debate on ethics of paying sources

Although paying for sources is not new to U.S. journalism, the exchange of money for photos and information related to former congressman Anthony Weiner's online hanky-panky has renewed debate about the practice.

Chris Cuomo, a correspondent for ABC News and co-host of 20/20, admitted to paying a Texas woman $10,000 to $15,000 for photos she sent Weiner, the married Democratic congressman who resigned in disgrace June 16 after admitting he sent sexually suggestive photographs and messages to women he befriended on Twitter and Facebook. Cuomo told Howard Kurtz he doesn't like the practice, but they snapped up the interview before their competitors. "It is the state of play right now," Cuomo said. "I wish it were not."

The New York Times reported that fierce competitors ABC and NBC are more willing to accommodate sources as they battle for viewers. For example, NBC created a trust fund to get an "exclusive" interview with a high school student who faked a pregnancy while ABC, The Times paid a six-figure sum for home movies made of Jaycee Lee Dugard, the young woman who was held captive for 18 years, who agreed to an exclusive interview with Diane Sawyer.

The Poynter Institute's Julie Moos suggested television broadcasters are more likely to pay sources, labeled "licensing fees," than print news organizations, in part because television is a visual medium and some shows require content 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Slate's Jack Shafer, who notes paying sources has a long tradition in the U.S. media, suggests there should be no ethical issue if a paid source's information is properly vetted and it helps confirm or deny aspects of a controversial story.

Writing for the Columbia Journalism Review, John Cook, from Gawker, said paying sources is distasteful but if money had not exchanged hands, The Daily Telegraph would not have broken the news in 2009 about British politicians wasting taxpayers' money on personal perks. "Ethical squeamishness aside," Cook declared, "if paying for evidence of massive and systemic abuses of the public trust is wrong, then I don’t want to be right.

The U.S. media has also been criticized for its coverage of the Weiner case, which dominated the news for a week in June.

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