BY: David Bauder
NEW YORK – CBS News helped pay for a Wisconsin family’s trip to Samoa and an emotional meeting that was a key moment in Saturday’s “48 Hours” special on an adoption scam involving children taken from their South Pacific homes under false pretenses.
While the network defended its involvement, the payment raises ethical questions about whether its financial commitment risked changing the outcome of a story it was reporting.
The special “The Lost Children” involves American families who adopted children from Samoa after being told they were orphans. According to ’48 Hours,’ the children in most cases were taken from families who wanted a better life for their offspring and were falsely told they’d be in a foster situation and have contact with them.
When the practice by the Utah-based Focus on Children agency was revealed by “48 Hours,” it forced heartbreaking decisions upon dozens of American families. Should they keep children they had longed cared for or let them decide to return to Samoan families they might not remember?
Patti Sawyer, a divorced mother of teenage twins from Fon du Lac, Wis., was among the people affected and her family one of three profiled by CBS in the special. She adopted a girl, Jayden, who came to the United States in 2005 shortly before her fifth birthday. Jayden had stayed for nearly a year in a Samoan halfway house run by the adoption agency before traveling to the United States, and had very little memory of her Samoan family.
The Sawyer family traveled to Samoa this past summer to meet Jayden’s biological family, and the network said it contributed to paying for the trip. Neither Sawyer nor CBS would reveal how much the network paid.
Sawyer was actively fundraising to get money for the trip and CBS’ contribution sped up the timing, she said. “They helped us significantly, but we were clearly going there, one way or another,” she said.
She said she was confident that Jayden would decide to return to Wisconsin with her new American family, which she did.
Bob Steele, a journalism values scholar at DePauw University, said it was a legitimate story. But CBS’ financial involvement raised ethical questions.
“I’m certainly troubled when a news organization financially involves itself in the course of a story and potentially impacts how the story develops,” he said.
Susan Zirinsky, “48 Hours” executive producer, compared the arrangement to when news organizations fly interview subjects to locations for interviews. That’s a common practice among morning shows, for example, who will fly interviewees to New York and put them up in a nice hotel. If CBS had arranged for both families to come to New York, it wouldn’t have been an issue, she said. She thought Samoa was the proper place to unspool the story.
“We wanted to put the families together and talk to them together,” she said. “Journalistically, I felt that was absolutely appropriate to be able to discuss with both families in one location how they felt and how they were going to work it out.”
The network briefly discloses its involvement during Saturday’s show, saying that the Sawyers traveled to Samoa “with `48 Hours” help.”
Kelly McBride, an ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute, said it would have been wise for CBS to put the Sawyers in contact with a nonprofit group that could help with the trip and provide experts to deal with its emotional ramifications. The downside for CBS would be losing control of the story and the video.
“The boundaries are very fuzzy in a case like this,” said McBride. Knowing that a news organization helped pay for a subject’s involvement in a story might encourage the person to do or say something differently than they might have otherwise, she said.
Sawyer said she would not have felt betrayed or blamed CBS if the outcome in Samoa had been different. At first wary of the journalists, she said CBS News employees treated them well and anticipated their needs in the foreign country, arranging for translators and vans for transportation.
“The CBS people treated us like family, watching out for us,” she said. “They didn’t just take us over there and drop us — ‘We had you over here and we have our story so we’re done with you.’”
The CBS story also focused on Mike and Kari Nyberg, from outside Salt Lake City, Utah, whose adopted daughter went back to Samoa permanently. CBS was not involved in paying for the Nybergs’ trip.
Saturday’s special was the result of more than two years’ work for “48 Hours,” and was tough both physically and emotionally, Zirinsky said. There was a personal tug, too: The episode’s correspondent, Maureen Maher, was herself adopted; Zirinsky is the mother of an adopted teenage girl from China.
“I feel honored to do this kind of a story,” she said.
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