Opinion

When Is It Okay for Journalists to Accept Gifts from Their Sources?

Sam Tranum portrait
Sam Tranum

Sam Tranum is deputy editor of Dublin Inquirer. He's been a newspaper reporter, a newspaper editor, an assistant professor of journalism, an author and a book editor, among other things. You can follow him @samtranum.

A PR company recently offered to send Dublin Inquirer a bottle of whiskey.

It was a  “limited edition bottle of Jameson . . . designed by [a] renowned Dublin street artist . . . to officially launch Jameson’s #BeOriginal campaign for St. Patricks Day”. And they asked whether we’d like to interview the artist.

This was a generous offer, and since our managing editor does like her Jameson’s, it seemed like an easy call: thank the PR company, drink the whiskey, interview this talented artist, write an article — everybody’s a winner.

But, instead, it sparked a discussion among members of the Dublin Inquirer team about when it’s okay for journalists to take gifts, and when it compromises our independence. Or even just appears to compromise it, which is bad too.

We do not normally cover changes in whiskey-bottle designs, so if we suddenly started, our readers might guess something was up. And if they learned that we did it because we got a free bottle of whiskey, would they think less of us?

We emailed the National Union of Journalists’ ethics hotline on 6 March, for some emergency ethics advice, but we’ve yet to hear back from them. And their Code of Conduct doesn’t mention gifts.

So we had to figure out on our own the right thing to do.

Over the 17 years or so since my first internship as a newspaper reporter at the Burlington Free Press in Vermont, I’ve seen a lot of different approaches to gift-taking by journalists.

During a news writing and reporting fellowship at Florida’s Poynter Institute in the summer of 2000, I got to shadow a reporter for the St Petersburg Times. We were covering a news conference out in the glare of the Florida sunshine.

I don’t remember what it was about, just that there was a helicopter parked on the green, green Florida grass, and there were a lot of cops around. And the sun was burning hot, and the sea was nearby, but I couldn’t exactly take off my shirt and tie and jump in.

But there was a tent. Cool and welcoming, shading a table laden with bottles of cold water (and snacks). When I went to grab a bottle, my mentor told me gently to put it back, explaining that it was the Times’s policy that reporters did not accept anything from sources. Not even water.

So that’s one ascetic extreme on the ethical continuum. It made a big impression on me.

Still, when I was covering West Virginia’s state government for the Charleston Daily Mail a year or two later, and a government source casually offered to let me use his weekend house, a long drive out of the city, in a shady glen, by a river, I kind of thought it would be okay. My source wasn’t actually giving me anything — nothing tangible, anyway.

I had a nagging feeling that there might be a problem, though, so I went to my editor and checked. He told me I was an idiot, and that I was not, under any circumstances, to accept weekends in country homes, appointments to state boards, or any other intangible favours from sources.

But the Daily Mail wasn’t quite as hard-line about gifts as the St Petersburg Times. A bottle of water was fine — and even, perhaps, a meal.

That approach is somewhere near the middle of the ethical continuum. I’ve also encountered the far, permissive end of it.

I taught journalism for two years at the American University of Central Asia, which is in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. It’s a beautiful, mountainous former Soviet republic on China’s western border, with a population roughly the size of Ireland’s.

My students were from various ‘stans. After my first year of teaching, some of them graduated and went off to work for newspapers and broadcasters in Bishkek.

In my second year, I thought it would be a great idea to invite these young professionals back to talk to my classes, to tell students coming up behind them what it was really like out there, as a working journalist.

I tried it first with one of my most enthusiastic, motivated ex-students. I introduced him, suggested a few topics he might cover, turned the class over to him and sat down in the front row of desks to listen.

He said he’d cover the things I mentioned, but first, he wanted to talk about something else. He was clearly excited about it, nearly giddy.

“The best thing about being a reporter is all the stuff people give you when you’re covering stories!” he told the class, as I remember it.

Now, I am not an anti-gift fundamentalist by any means. I’ll gratefully accept a cup of tea during an interview, or a ride somewhere afterwards — without insisting on paying for either.

But there has to be a line, because we need to maintain our independence from our sources.

If we take too much, our sources might be able to use our gratitude as leverage to get us to write what they want. Or we might just have a warm, fuzzy feeling for them that keeps us from asking the tough questions.

The question is where to draw the line.

When I was covering congressional committee meetings, and the committee staffers offered to let me skip the hour-long queue to get a chair in the gallery and then seat me at a special press table up front, should I have said no? While lounging in my special seat, should I have eaten the chocolate-covered almonds in the bowl placed in front of me or abstained?

When I was covering uranium mining and needed to get to a mine in northern Saskatchewan, should I have accepted an empty seat, free of charge, on a company plane headed there? Or should I have insisted on finding my own way — or at least paying for the seat?

Should travel writers take free cruises, flights or hotel rooms, and then write about their experiences? Should book reviewers take free books? Should war correspondents embed with the military forces on one side of a conflict, or should they make their own way?

There are no black-and-white rules, unfortunately. Just different approaches on this long continuum stretching from ultra-ethical to ultra-permissive behaviour. Most of us will find ourselves somewhere in the grey middle, doing our best to do the right thing.

And what about the bottle of whiskey? We decided to decline it, because if we’d taken it, we would have felt obligated to write about it — and that’s a story we would not have otherwise written.

 

Comments

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  2. David A
    9 March at 14:02

    I very much enjoyed this – as a non journalist it’s not an issue I knew much about.

    It’s also interesting to perform a google search to see which other publications “took the soup”!

  3. Anthony
    9 March at 14:35

    John 8:32 and the Truth shall set you free. 🙂

    Take the Whiskey. Drink the Whiskey. Write an honest review about it. What’s the problem? Go on the Trip, eat the food, go on the excursion and write an honest review!

    If the company values constructive criticism and wants to make their brand the best they will appreciate the honesty and work on the faults if there was any? If not they won’t ask you again and you’ll be free 🙂

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