For journalists, the opportunities for freebies are plentiful and tempting.
Hors d’oeuvres are within reach at catered functions. A source wants to break the ice by buying us a drink. That new book on sale? Go ahead and take one, the author says; share it with your colleagues.
That might generate word-of-mouth publicity for the author, but it carves a chunk out of our integrity.
It’s such an elementary no-no in our profession — “Don’t accept gifts” — but so widely fudged, it’s worth discussing every so often.
The SPJ Code of Ethics says: “Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and shun secondary employment, political involvement, public office and service in community organizations if they compromise journalistic integrity.”
That’s a foundation; it’s up to your news outlet to set a more concrete limit, if it wants to.
In the industry, acceptable levels for freebies vary.
* The Chicago Tribune: “Unsolicited merchandise whose value exceeds that of a key chain will be returned or donated to charity by the newspaper.”
* National Public Radio: “NPR journalists may accept gifts of token value (hats, mugs, T-shirts, etc.). Unsolicited items of significant value will be returned with a letter thanking the sender but stating our policy on gifts. NPR journalists pick up the check when they can (i.e., they are not wined and dined by sources). … There are certain instances — such as conferences and conventions — where food is provided as a convenience for the press as a whole, and in such instances it is acceptable to take advantage of this.”
* Gannett: “For people in news operations, the recommended practice is to accept no gifts.”
* Sydney (Australia) Morning Herald: “Gifts shall not be accepted, other than those of a small and inconsequential nature. Those known or estimated to be worth more than $20 will be donated to charity.” That converts to about 15 U.S. dollars.
* Leave it to The New York Times to include in its ethics policy a sample letter for returning a gift:
“Your recent gift came as a pleasant surprise. I appreciate your thinking of me. But the gift puts me in an awkward position. The New York Times bars its reporters and editors from accepting anything of value from the people or groups they cover. The paper does not want to risk the perception that it will cover a subject more thoroughly or skew its coverage of controversial subjects because interested parties have expressed appreciation for its efforts.”
My newsroom’s policy is to decline all gifts, whenever possible. An exception may be made for something of “insignificant value” — worth less than $1 or so — “if declining the gift would be awkward or embarrassing. The journalist’s supervisor must be consulted and approve that alternative, however.”
I remember a former co-worker trying to precisely follow the $1 standard when a cake was served at a government meeting he was covering. What was the total value of the cake? Divided by how many slices?
That takes an ethical guideline to an exaggerated extreme.
More important is understanding and internalizing how, when and why to steer clear of perks.
Journalists attend and report on events, but don’t participate in them. While the rest of the chamber of commerce has lunch, we sit on the sidelines — maybe a little hungry — waiting for the keynote address to begin.
Not long ago, at an open house I was covering, an organizer offered me something to eat. I told her I’m not allowed. She said I shouldn’t worry; no one would tell my boss — as if that was what was holding me back.
When I decline a freebie — I do my best to accept absolutely nothing, other than information for my stories — I tell people that I appreciate the offer as much as the item itself, which is true.
Be prepared to be firm.
What’s the standard in your newsroom? Does everyone know it and follow it?
There’s never a bad time to review your policy.
Consider that some freebie advice.
Andy Schotz is SPJ’s Ethics Committee chairman.
Contact him at LawnGyland@aol.com
Tagged under: Ethics