June 17, 2004

Imagine this: You’re a journalist, attending a business reception to interview someone. On your way in, you drop your business card into a bowl filled with other cards.


Later, someone reaches into the bowl. He draws out your card and calls out your name. You’ve won first-class airline tickets, with such amenities as massages and an open bar. Total worth?  About $20,000.


What would you do?


Debra J. Saunders, a columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle, recently faced what you just imagined. She was at a reception hosted by the British Consul during a bioethics trade show.


What did she do? She declined the prize on the spot. When I called her this week to talk to her about her decision, the first thing she wanted me to know was that she did the wrong thing.


“It was my mistake, I shouldn’t have done it,” Saunders said.


What she shouldn’t have done, she stressed, was put her name in the bowl in the first place. “It was a stupid thing to do,” she added.


When she arrived, she initially thought the bowl of cards might be the host’s way of compiling an e-mail list for people who wanted information. But after she dropped her card into the bowl, she realized it involved a drawing.


“Once I did it, I knew I was going to win,” Saunders said, adding she hasn’t had that feeling before, nor has she won any such drawings before. She also knew something else: “I couldn’t accept it.”


Her decision surprised others at the reception. “The British bigwig practically fainted, telling the crowd, ‘A journalist with ethics? Incredible,'” reported Chronicle columnists Phillip Matier and Andrew Ross as an item in their June 13 column.


Other reactions ranged from one person who described her as a jerk and another for acting pompous by declining the prize, Saunders said. One individual told her that since it was a random drawing, he didn’t see any problem with her accepting it. Someone else told her she could have given it to a family member, or have donated it to charity.  But that didn’t work for her, either.


She emphasized that the decision was one she made for herself. She wasn’t trying to make a statement about what someone else should have done. “I’m comfortable with what I did. I think a lot of people would have done it. A lot of people wouldn’t,” she said.


She didn’t enjoy turning down the prize. In fact, she can’t remember what happened during the next 60 seconds after declining it. She had to ask who won the prize when the drawing was done again. The fact is she loves to travel. But she values her integrity more.


“I know it would have looked bad,” she said. “People would think it was a quid pro quo. It would undermine my moral authority.” And diminish her credibility, she added.


Even though the prize came from Virgin Airlines, and not from those hosting the biotech conference,  she thought the airline might open a San Francisco office. She might end up writing about the company. And she said she doesn’t know how to accept things from other people and not feel grateful.


For Saunders, the prize presented a conflict-of-interest. She describes herself as a conservative who writes an opinion column. She tells others what she believes is right and wrong. What she requires of others, she said, she must apply to herself.


“Writing a column made me a more moral person,” Saunders said. “When you talk about how others should do things, you need to look at yourself. I know people who do those things (they tell others not to do). But I don’t respect them.”


She also thought it was possible her newspaper wouldn’t let her accept the prize, so she considered it smart to say no in advance.


John Diaz, editorial page editor for the Chronicle, said Saunders did the right thing. It would have been out of bounds for her to accept it — no matter what the amount, he added. The Chronicle has an ethics policy, and under headline of “No freebies,” Diaz read me the following: “No staff member may accept free or reduced rate transportation, gifts, or junkets from current or potential news sources, including government agencies, or the government or agency of another country.”

For Saunders, the prize presented a conflict-of-interest. She describes herself as a conservative who writes an opinion column. She tells others what she believes is right and wrong. What she requires of others, she said, she must apply to herself. And yet Saunders’ response stood out enough to surprise the British Consul hosting the reception. It appeared as an item of interest in a newspaper column. It got noted in Romenesko. That says a number of things about journalistic ethics. It shows ethics matter. It runs counter to the stereotype that some have about journalists being unethical. It reminds us that journalists’ actions say something about journalists as individuals, and about our profession in general.


Some might characterize Saunders’ decision as difficult. Who wouldn’t welcome all the free travel, along with the enjoyable amenities tacked on? Giving all that up when you didn’t even ask for it, and nothing is being asked of you, might seem silly.


Yet, others might think it an easy decision. Who wouldn’t feel beholden to an organization that had given them so much? Just say “no,” would be their response — avoid the conflict-of-interest accusations that might follow.


In some ways, it seems the size of the prize played a part in the prominence it achieved as a news item. But does size matter? If she had turned down two tickets to a concert, a show, or a ballgame, would that make news? Maybe. Maybe not. If all she had accepted was a free meal, would that put her in any less debt?


I don’t know how many times I’ve heard from journalists that “I can’t be bought for a meal.” Which, of course, begs the question: What could you be bought for? A Mercedes-Benz? An all-expense paid trip to Disney World? A free trip to Tuscany? Or even a wine company-sponsored trip to the California vineyards?


Ultimately, what journalists claim about their integrity means less than what they show when their integrity is tested. When it comes to writing, there’s an old journalistic saw that says: “Show. Don’t tell.”


It applies to ethics as well.

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Aly Colón is the John S. and James L. Knight Chair in Journalism Ethics at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. Previously, Colón led…
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