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US TV channel NBC News has agreed to pay the family of Reeva Steenkamp, the woman killed by Oscar Pistorius, for a series of interviews.
The deal is the latest instance of “chequebook journalism” by NBC, which has lined up a series of other newsworthy individuals by offering, in some cases, more than $100 000 (R1.1 million) for their co-operation.
The practice of paying sources is routine among European and US tabloid journalists but is considered ethically questionable by mainstream organisations.
Critics say such payments could induce a news source to dramatise or distort their account. It can also create a conflict of interest that could introduce bias into the reporting of a story by putting an otherwise independent news organisation into a financial partnership with a source.
Last week NBC’s Today programme featured an interview with June Steenkamp, Reeva’s mother, billing it as “exclusive”.
NBC News spokeswoman Ali Zelenko said the British unit of Peacock Productions, an NBC News subsidiary, paid “a very modest licensing fee” to the Steenkamp family. The fee, which she declined to disclose, covered “materials” to be used in three documentaries Peacock was producing “for various outside clients”, she said.
She declined to identify the clients or comment on how Today’s interview with Steenkamp came about.
Since last year, NBC has aired a series of exclusive interviews by offering cash and other inducements to people who have become newsworthy.
For example, the network signed a six-figure deal with the teenage Californian kidnap victim Hannah Anderson and her father Brett last year. NBC featured the Andersons on several programmes and 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 programmes.
NBC News appears to have taken a more aggressive approach to securing the biggest “gets” under new president Deborah Turness.
NBC says it only pays sources to license home video, photographs and other personal material, and does not pay for interviews. However, one of the sky divers, Mike Robinson, said at the time the group’s agreement with NBC gave the network exclusivity on TV interviews for a two-week period.
The arrangements are only vaguely described to viewers and sometimes not disclosed at all.
NBC is under intense pressure to overtake Good Morning America,the ABC programme that ended Today’s long reign as the top-rated US morning news programme, the most lucrative period. - Washington Post