No free gifts.
It’s a simple rule, really. It seems so easy to understand, so hard to get wrong. In the past few months, as we’ve heard stories about Quebec politicians and civil servants getting free things from construction companies, we’ve become collectively outraged. How could people not realize how obviously unethical this all is? How could people be so stupid?
The assumption, of course, is that they’re not stupid or naive, but evil. They’ve done wrong because they want to be corrupt, they want to profit from their positions and screw the taxpayer for personal gain.
Last week, as the Charbonneau Commission was getting yet more scandalous detail of the too-cozy relationship between government officials and the companies they hire, a story came out of Winnipeg that raised a few eyebrows among the journalistic community. Ikea, the Swedish retailer, opened a store in the Manitoba capital, and invited media and bloggers to a party the night before, where they were given free alcohol, gift bags and a 15% discount (CBC’s video shows the crowd cheering as the latter is announced, though it’s unclear how many of the cheering fans were journalists and how many were bloggers, marketers and other invited guests).
CBC Winnipeg apparently didn’t like this whole thing, and focused a story on the ethical problem. (The story doesn’t make it clear who brought up the ethical issue in the first place, leaving me with the impression that it was the CBC itself – and that it hid this with the use of the passive tense in its headline and lead paragraph. Marc Weisblott also points out that CBC itself regularly gives out freebies during its media events.)
The CBC story got picked up by a media ethics blog, which took aim at a couple of bloggers bragging about the swag they got.
It’s not that an Ikea opening in a city like Winnipeg isn’t news. But a lot of the news surrounding it has been of the fluffy variety (quizzes, anyone?). A Winnipeg Free Press story, which reads almost like an advertisement, has three bylines. The Free Press also provided this bit of “investigative journalism” (in their defence, used with tongue in cheek) about how long the walk is in the store. Dozens of stories have been written on this store by the FP alone, most of them in a positive light.
At the Winnipeg Sun, the event was important enough to send a handful of journalists, who livetweeted the event, taking pictures of themselves with the merchandise and even bragging about the free wine they were getting.
Imagine, for a moment, government officials bragging on social media about all the free stuff they were getting from construction companies.
Now, I’m not saying that all these journalists are on the take, or that the free stuff they got prompted them to be more positive about Ikea when writing their stories. But I wonder if this opening would have gotten this much media attention if Ikea hadn’t been so … welcoming … to journalists.
As I’ve become more known in this industry, I’ve been invited to more of these kinds of events. There was The Beat’s exclusive first anniversary party, and a party (mainly for advertising clients) at Astral’s new radio studios, both of which I went to more as a way to chat with the people I cover than because of the music or free food and booze. It’s always kind of awkward when I have to come up with an excuse for why I’m not drinking away their promotion budget like everyone else.
It’s hard to say no when things are offered to you. Much of journalism requires getting access to people and places that normal people aren’t allowed or have to pay a price to reach. Journalists – particularly those in entertainment – get free swag sent to them all the time, usually in the form of cheap branded stuff, stuff they don’t really have much use for.
I myself haven’t been perfect. I let a certain radio DJ entice me into stocking up on candy. I’ve let a couple of sources pay for a (modest) meal we’ve shared, mainly to avoid the awkwardness of getting into an argument on principles. In these borderline cases I’ve relieved my guilt by making an equivalent donation to the Gazette Christmas Fund at the end of the year, but I should probably be more firm about these kinds of things.
It’s hard to set a clear line between what’s acceptable and what’s not. You can be fundamental like the New York Times and say no gifts whatsoever. You can be practical like other companies and say no gifts over, say, $20, to distinguish the silly swag junk from the stuff that people really crave.
What’s important, I think, is that journalists understand why they’re being given free stuff. Companies aren’t stupid. They know that giving free stuff to people in media works, if not to ensure positive coverage then at least to ensure some attention (which means free advertising).
And not to get too far into Media Ethics 101, but rewarding this activity discriminates against those without the big budgets. Those mom-and-pop businesses that don’t have a social media strategy or an event planner who can ensure journalists get nice gift bags. Hell, many of them don’t even have the time or money to send out a press release to all the mainstream media in town. Think about that too when you’re getting all this attention from the people with lots of money.
Journalists are always going to be a special class. They’ll have free access to events they’re covering when everyone else has to pay. They’ll get to meet celebrities that everyone else can only dream of getting an autograph from. They’ll get their requests for information quickly upgraded to a higher priority. And often they’ll get special treatment just because.
These are great privileges, in some cases necessary to do their jobs properly. But it’s up to journalists to ensure that these privileges aren’t abused.
What happened in Winnipeg is an example of such abuse. A minor one. I’m not calling for anyone’s head. I just ask that these journalists think a bit more next time and look their gift horses a bit more squarely in the mouth, and not to be excited at the prospect of shiny things being put in front of your faces. Not to let your sources get you drunk. And certainly not to brag about that to your less privileged audience.
Unfortunately for us, it’s the stuff that we want the most that is the most unethical to take.
And if Quebec politics has taught us anything, it’s that “c’était Céline Dion, quand même” isn’t an excuse people will accept for something that looks so much like quid pro quo.