The Botox Mom and Checkbook Journalism

An unraveling story is shedding light on how ABC News pays for stories

This article is from the archive of our partner .

It's becoming increasingly difficult to try and figure out who's lying about what in the Botox Mom story. But one thing is glaringly clear: ABC News is going to have a hard time convincing critics that it doesn't engage in checkbook journalism. ABC News confirmed rumors that the network offered $10,000 through a broker for photos of Sheena Upton (a.k.a. Kerry Campbell, a.k.a. "Botox Mom") and her evidently not-Botoxed daughter. But Upton fabricated the story, ABC News will not send payment to the U.K. freelancer they licensed for an exclusive on the story. "We had agreed to pay a $10,000 licensing fee to a U.K. freelancer for the pictures, but obviously in light of everything that's happened, zero money has been sent that way," a network spokesman told The Hollywood Reporter, adding, "We have a contract with the freelanceer, which obviously stipulates that the images depict what they purport to show, that there's no staging in any way."

Last week, Good Morning America interviewed Upton, who later told TMZ she had been offered "a large fee" to appear on camera. TMZ's sources claimed the figure was $10,000. According to documents obtained by TMZ early on Friday, Upton's correspondence with the broker ABC News struck its deal with reveal strict instructions on how to handle the offer from Good Morning America as well as Inside Edition which allegedly paid Upton $9,500 for an appearance:

Just over a year ago, the network found itself embroiled in a strikingly similar--however much more violent--disturbing story about a mother and daughter. In 2008, ABC News released another exclusive story about Casey Anthony, a young Florida mother accused of murdering her two year-old daughter Caylee. That September 5, 2008 report, "Never-Before-Seen Images of Casey Anthony and Missing Florida Toddler" was one of at least 30 stories the network ran about the Anthony case between then and March 2010, when in court, Casey Anthony revealed that ABC News had paid $200,000 towards her defense. The payments were made in August 2008, weeks before the ABC News exclusive and months before a grand jury indicted Casey Anthony.

Paying for stories is a big no-no according to journalistic ethics, and the Poynter Institute slammed ABC News for it last March. The network used the same language to describe that situation as they're using for the Botox Mom story. According to sworn testimony, ABC News paid $200,000 for "licensing of photos" and court documents revealed that they also paid for a three-night stay at the Ritz-Carlton for Casey Anthony's parents. Kelly McBride, head of Poynter's ethics group said of the deal:

It sounds to me like a pretty lucrative photo licensing deal. I don’t know how much [is typical] when they really have to license photos, but $200,000 is pretty expensive. I question all of these over-the-top licensing arrangements because you are essentially paying for a source to talk to you and you are going around the rules that say you are not allowed to do that.

It gets so muddled because it’s just dishonest by nature to have these wink-wink nod-nod deals where we are saying we are licensing for the photos and not paying for her participation in the story. That is such a challenge to my sensibilities.

In an attempt to quash what they viewed as a growing trend, the Society of Professional journalists came down hard on ABC, who denied that the payment served as enticement for Casey Anthony to talk but rather served as a license for exclusive rights, common practice for TV news organizations. "We should have disclosed [the arrangement] to our audience," network Cathie Levine said after the fact and promised to impose a new policy that would require full disclosure when such payments were made. Weeks later, when Casey Anthony's parents appeared for an exclusive interview on Good Morning America, no disclosure was made.

Fourteen months later, ABC News finds itself in the same position. After agreeing to a big payment, Good Morning America interviewed Sheena Upton, featuring the paid-for photos prominently, and said nothing about the $10,000. Until today, that is, when the story fell apart.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.