Junkets, Gifts and Ethics

The topic of freebies has been something I’ve given a lot of thought to over the years. It’s tempting, particularly when starting out as a journalist, to see the offers of travel and the occasional gift as part of the benefit of the job. But it’s important to realise that one of the most important assets you have is reputation. And establishing and documenting your code of ethics is important for protecting that reputation.
I was reading this story about car makers modifying review cars provided to journalists and the following quote stood out to me.

A good review is worth a lot. Some marketers value a page of mainly positive editorial as worth 2½ to three times as much as a page of advertising.
That helps explain why companies fly journalists around and do their best to wrap them in cotton wool. (Some journalists think it’s because they are important and/or respected. Sad, sad souls.)

In case you missed it there are two key things

  1. Good editorial is more valuable than advertising
  2. Vendors and public relations people treat journalists well, at least partly, because happy writers may be more likely to write favourable copy

That means journalists need to keep their eye on what’s actually going on.
Last year, I was flown to Japan by a printer manufacturer to visit an R&D facility and meet with senior management. The value of that trip, for me, wasn’t the frequent flyer miles. The value came from the contacts I made and the increased product knowledge. Sure, some of that information could have been imparted by sending me a bunch of documentation. But the opportunity to speak with the people involved in the product development directly could never have been translated to paper.
As a freelance journalist, if you make the decision to accept a trip, then you need to make it clear to readers that when you write about the trip that you flew courtesy of the subject.
With gifts – it’s tougher. It would be easy to say “no gifts” but the reality is that something like a pen, cap or t-shirt isn’t likely to influence a writer. So where do you draw the line?
Fellow writer Renai LeMay is the editor of Delimiter. He recently declined the offer of a free tablet computer or smartphone at a product launch. Journalists in attendance (I wasn’t at the event) were offered a choice between the devices. He has a policy for his company of accepting gifts with a value in excess of $200.
Whether you agree with LeMay’s policy, what’s important to note is that LeMay has at least thought about it and has a policy.
I’d probably go a little further. I’d suggest that journalists should all

  1. Set a limit for the value of gifts
  2. Keep a register of gifts received
  3. Declare all gifts and sponsored travel

What do you do about gifts and trips? Do you have a policy? Let us know in the comments.

Comments (5)

  1. Patrick

    There is a factual flaw in this article: not all journalists were offered a free Xoom at that launch. Some were offered an Atrix smartphone and some weren’t offered either. Motorola was also happy to arrange a courier to pick up either should the journo declare that they wanted to play with/review the unit but not keep it.

  2. Thanks Patrick
    I intentionally omitted the name of the vendor and products. However, I have updated the post to mention the choice of tablet computer or smartphone.

  3. As a travel writer, I do accept assistance from PRs for travel to/around destinations and hotel accommodation. I look upon it as getting access to the product in the same way that journalists are lent cars to review.
    Ideally I’d like to live in a world wherein all my expenses are paid by publications, but unfortunately that generally doesn’t happen nowadays. I am, however, clear about the necessity of remaining independent in what I write about, and to their credit most PR people acknowledge this and don’t overtly try to influence my opinion.
    I also always include a disclosure at the end of articles and blog posts, along the lines of “Tim Richards travelled courtesy of the XYZ Tourism Commission”. I think this is an absolute ethical must and it’s disturbing to see bloggers going on subsidised trips without clearly telling their readers they’ve done so.
    I must mention the big exception to this – a Lonely Planet assignment (and I’m on one right now in Poland). When researching for LP I’m forbidden to take freebies, and the fee I’m paid for the contract is structured to (in theory) cover all my expenses and leave an appropriate fee for the time the work takes. I generally find this works out OK as long as I’m careful with my money, and it’s extremely refreshing to be able to review places in complete anonymity.
    As for gifts, beyond food/accomm I’ve never been offered much beyond a pen or two, and I’d be likely to knock back anything that had significant value as being inappropriate. Also, because I pack extremely lightly (just a carry-on bag no matter where I go or for how long), I view with alarm anything large or heavy that might be offered to me. Many is the weighty media pack (PRs look away now) that I’ve gutted before taking only the essential elements with me on my onward journey.
    To sum up, I think there’s no perfect answer here and it is indeed an ethical minefield. I personally think the acceptable limit is the journalist only accepting goods/services as far as he/she needs to in order to be able to do the job. Anything beyond that could be iffy.

  4. Great comment Tim. You’re right – there is no perfect way through this. But I agree that disclosure is critical.

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