Journalists Accepting Gifts?

October 2, 2006
Category: Uncategorized

Q: Joe, I’m not certain if
this has ever been addressed in your blog. I’m reporting for a
newspaper in a city with which I am very familiar. I know a lot of
people here and it helps, especially with beat coverage. Inevitably it
presents some questionable situations. Often, maybe even weekly, I’ll
interview such and such source over lunch, to later find out they’ve
already picked up the bill. In each instance, I’ve managed to cover my
share anyway, as to avoid any question of ethics. I see that as pretty
black and white. What I can’t discern is the gray, the situations where
I’ll write a feature on an artist and come home and see some work of
theirs delivered to my home. Or to find some restaurant owner sent
flowers. Or a gift certificate or a mug (And there are a lot of mugs.).

I’ve
talked to my paper about this. It didn’t help. I was told, “We accept
nothing, not even a cup of coffee.” Well, I won’t take a $4 latte, but
to turn down a cup in someone’s home, especially over long or difficult
interviews when you just want to make a source comfortable? Maybe I’m
thinking too much of it. But I’d also hate to run into a source who, in
front of a colleague, asks, “Enjoy the flowers?”

I just want to do what’s right.

Thanks.

Kelly

A: You’re starting with the right ideal: to do what is right.

Your question may contain the kernel of an answer.

Certainly,
politely turn down gifts. “I’m sorry. I appreciate the gesture, but I
have a strict policy of not accepting anything in return for what I do
as a journalist. Not even as a thank you or a sign of appreciation. I
really can’t accept.” You can use that language when you talk to people
or in a letter when you send things back, or when that is impossible,
you turn gifts over to a local charity.

But a cup of coffee in
someone’s home or office? I don’t think you should start carrying a
Thermos. You can politely decline to drink without the speech, or you
can accept one if you think that doing otherwise would be a snub.
Before you accept, ask yourself how this would appear to readers:
“Would they think that my journalistic independence has been
compromised?” If you’ve accepted nothing of much value and feel an
onlooker would think your independence is in intact and that you’ve
just done the socially acceptable thing, you’ve walked the line.