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Analyzing The CBS News Analysts

(CBS/The Early Show)
Last week, in response to a question about CBS News paying a pair of Route 66 tour guides who appeared in an "Evening News" story, CBS News Senior Vice President, Standards and Special Projects Linda Mason said the following:
"We disclose when we've paid somebody. Sometimes we do it by saying that the person is a CBS News analyst. Or a CBS News consultant. That's code for we paid this expert. Otherwise we would just say they're an energy analyst."
The statement prompted questions from commenters. "Couldn't viewers reasonably believe that the consultant or analyst was appearing just because the person felt he or she had something important to say?" asked DYN175, adding: "If CBS News wants to be truly transparent, why use 'code'?"

Mason told me that she doesn't worry about people not understanding what CBS News journalists mean when they speak of analysts or consultants. "We think most people do [understand]," she said. As for using "code," it seems to me an imperfect but reasonable system. Certainly, it would be excessive to identify an expert as, for example, "CBS News analyst John Smith, who is paid for his availability," each time he appears. One could argue that an expert should be identified as "paid CBS analyst John Smith," perhaps, though it seems reasonable to assume that when someone is identified as a CBS News analyst, viewers know he or she is paid for the analysis, just as they know that someone identified as a CBS News correspondent is paid by CBS News.

Commenter joycewest also raised questions after last week's post. She wrote in part: "Why does TV news choose to pay experts when I've never noticed newspapers doing so? I presume (tell me if I'm wrong) that paying an expert guarantees exclusivity and availability for live interviews when news breaks. Does the consultant offer advice or tips to news producers behind the scenes?"

Mason said she could not generalize about the roles of experts retained by CBS News in general, since their roles vary. She did say that in some cases, an analyst's contract requires that he or she be available for on-camera interviews during periods of breaking news, but noted that this is not always the case. Mason also said that the number and type of analysts employed by CBS News is constantly fluctuating – during an election year, for example, there will be more political experts on the payroll – but she estimated that CBS News employed "no more than 20 [experts] at any one time." She added that the analysts often help correspondents get an understanding of a subject or give them advice on the angle from which they should approach a story, even if they don't end up on camera.

Here's more joycewest:

I can understand the value of having on hand a retired general to talk about military strategy, and maybe it's useful to supplement the knowledge of the news staff with a former insider's insights. In essence, however, it's journalists paying for interviews. Doesn't this muddy the waters ethically speaking? I bet a good number of cynics probably wonder how many other interviews are paid for. I have to say this isn't something that keeps me awake at night, because I realize interviews are not purchased by ethical news organizations. But there are many cynics who think interviews are paid for…I don't know that making it transparent that an expert is paid increases news media credibility. Would it not be better on balance to avoid all payment to interviewees? Or is the service rendered worth it?
These are interesting questions. I don't think that paying to have a retired general available to talk about military strategy or provide guidance, for example, is a serious ethical transgression, but I think it's fair to ask if it does muddy the ethical waters -- and if it creates a perception problem at a time when the media is trying to retain its credibility in the face of critics.

UPDATE: More on CBS News analysts and consultants here.