The not-so-golden rule

  • The Society of Professional Journalists’s code of ethics is the ethics policy followed by most news organizations
  • It is frowned upon by most news organizations to accept ‘freebies’ from business or people who could be subjects of articles
  • Ethics are one of the most gray areas of journalism

When it comes to writing articles, reporters and editors know that it's important to remain professional and not let anything hinder their reporter. Photo by Krisha Agatep

Ethics are kind of a funny thing because one person’s ethics are almost always going to be different from another’s. In life, people are taught that lying is bad and stealing will get you nowhere but not all adhere to “rules.” In journalism, things aren’t much different — there is a set of ethical guidelines which all journalists are expected to follow but it doesn’t mean that all do.

One of the biggest ethical dilemmas that most journalists face is the opportunity to receive free products and services from businesses and people. What is offered can range from a complementary bottle of wine to a free dinner to season tickets to the Dodgers. What the journalist must ask themselves, however, is if the service or product is worth the possible backlash to one’s public reputation.

When a journalist takes ‘freebies’ it can look bad to the public opinion because it would seem that they are being persuaded to have good opinions about that person or business. When the time comes for an article to be written, how can the public trust that the journalist is going to be unbiased and tell the public the truth? While the journalist  knows that a free dinner isn’t going to compromise their reporting, the public may see differently and all trust is gone. Ethics professor Teresa Allen, who has been teaching the subject at Cal Poly for 10 years and was a reporter for 15 years, said public trust is incredibly important for journalists.

“I think the bottom line is that just because you accept something free doesn’t mean you are compromised,” Allen said. “What gets compromised is the public credibility. If someone hears you were taking these passes, it’s public credibility that’s the issue. It’s about trust and one thing you really have to be able to trust is your news provider — whatever that is — and if you don’t trust them, why would you want to read them?”

As much as journalists want to stay they don’t care about public opinion, it is one of the things that drives some of our actions and it is one thing that went through my mind when I was recently offered two free passes to a restaurant. I genuinely don’t believe the person was offering me the passes out of any scheming plan to get the Mustang Daily to only write positive articles about them. I believe the offer was good-natured and came only from their desire to make me aware of the place. But someone else who was offered the passes was allowed to accept — Mustang Daily advertising representatives.

Business administration senior Ryan Cloney has been an advertising representative for the Mustang Daily for just more than a year. When he was offered the passes he wasn’t sure if he should accept them but advertising coordinator Stephanie Murawski said it was OK because the difference between advertising and editorial has a lot to do with the idea of persuasion.

Advertising and editorial bond at the staff camping retreat during the summer. However, even though the two are both part of the Mustang Daily does not mean all the same rules apply. Courtesy photo.

“This is thanking Ryan for his hard work,” Murawski said. “Whereas editorial, it’s seen as more of a gift because it can look like a persuasion type of thing where the client is trying to get editorial to write a positive story.  Stories from editorial should be fact-based, not based on their likes and dislikes.”

With advertising, the representative needs to know their product so they can sell it and help the client find the best way to get their product to consumers. Cloney said he had no problem accepting the restaurant passes because it allows him to get to know the product better and, ultimately, it helps him help the client.

“It makes it a little more personal when you’re helping to get that message across that you know that product,” Cloney said. “Advertising is more of a business-to-business relationship where there’s not a conflict of interest. You’re representing that client as what their wants and needs are and you do your best to make sure their ads get placed. You see it a lot in the business world today. A lot of people make their deals on the golf course, in the basketball arenas, at football games, in Vegas. That’s a part of business, like it or not.”

However, denying freebies wasn’t always the case for reporters and editors. Mustang Daily general manager Paul Bittick, who was a reporter for more than 25 years, said he can remember being a sports reporter in Fresno and receiving season tickets every year to see the Dodgers — something entirely different than his press credentials which allowed him to sit in the press box with the other reporters. Bittick said back then, no one thought twice about accepting those kinds of gifts.

“Nobody saw it as an ethics lapse,” Bittick said. “It wasn’t hush, hush or anything. It was the standard. Would I accept today? Probably not because it’s not an accepted practice. But 35 years ago it was.”

Nevertheless, there is often a question about whether or not receiving tickets to review a show is acceptable, especially for smaller news organizations that can’t afford to pay every time it wants to do a review. Should one have to pay while another, just because they can’t afford it, gets in for free? The thing about ethics is it’s hard to make an absolute decision when there can be so many gray areas involved. Even so, when confronted with this kind of issue, Allen said the best thing is to be honest.

“I always tell my students that what do you say to someone who, out of the goodness of their heart is trying to offer you something?” Allen said. “I would just say ‘Thank you, I really appreciate the gesture but it’s against our policy and I would personally get in trouble.’ Don’t accept freebies. Period.”

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