—written by Carolyn C. Holland
The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) is one of the oldest organizations representing journalists in the United States. The national organization debuted in 1909.
Preamble: Members of the Society of Professional Journalists believe that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. The duty of the journalist is to further those ends by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues. Conscientious journalists from all media and specialties strive to serve the public with thoroughness and honesty. Professional integrity is the cornerstone of a journalist’s credibility. Members of the Society share a dedication to ethical behavior and adopt this code to declare the Society’s principles and standards of practice.
The following discussion focuses on one item in the SPJ Code of Ethics, the receipt of gifts by the writer. In the future, other points will be discussed. To round out the review, I reviewed the code of ethics for BusinessWeek, the Chicago Tribune and the Boston Globe.
The SPJ states that writers should “refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment…,” so as not to “compromise journalistic integrity.” Journalist’s only obligation should be to the “public’s right to know.”
Gifts can be offered to a person for a myriad of reasons, including influencing the outcome of a story (prized tickets to a sports event), enlighten, enabling, enhancing, and illustrating a story (a sample copy of an author’s book) and gratitude. Often a writer needs to have hands-on contact with an item in order to compose his story.
In my personal journalism freelance writing career, I’ve attended conferences free, accepted meals, and received token items put out by businesses—eg., pens, pencils. However, when offered a wheel while doing a story on an Amish wainwright (wagon or wheel maker), I regretfully refused, even though it was a temptation.
The Chicago Tribune donates any unsolicited merchandise valued at more than “a key chain” to charity. Items, including books or recordings, sent strictly as gifts, must be treated as such.
Items contributed to illustrate or write a story must be purchased by the Tribune, or immediately returned to their source, and not kept for the staffer’s personal enjoyment—unless it is a either book or recording reviewed in the Tribune, or a book sent by an author seeking attention for the work.
Complimentary tickets or free admission to an event may be accepted by a staff member covering that event, or if he is authorized because of job responsibilities. Staff should not accept free tickets to an event for personal enjoyment, nor “special offers” aimed at members of the news media.
BusinessWeek’s Code of Ethics also states that copies of books, video games, etc., received for the staffer’s reporting needs, must be returned as much as is practical, or donated to a charity by the editor-in-chief.
Their staff members “may not accept gifts from companies, from their public relations firms or agents, or from any other supplier of information—“not a bottle of wine during the holidays, not a reduced-rate membership for your personal use,”—but they may accept company mementos or sample products valued at less than $25. Unsolicited gifts with more value must be returned, disposed of or donated to charity—the choice being determined by the sender of the gift, who must be contacted immediately.
Boston Globe: has the same return policy—items used for evaluation or review must be returned to the owner promptly. However, “Staff members may keep for their own collections — but may not sell or copy — books, recordings, tapes, compact discs and computer programs sent to them for review. Such submissions are considered press releases,” if its value is less than $50.
In all cases, extra copies of items may not be requested or solicitated by the writer.
There is also policy on accepting meals in the line of work.
For BusinessWeek, the policy is that lunch and dinner may be accepted from a source if the writer is likely to meet often enough to return the favor, unless the interview is over a meal with a source at the person’s offices, In all other instances, the writer or the magazine must pay your tab.
Whenever practical, Boston Globe writers should suggest dining where they can pay their share, or better yet meet in a setting that does not include a meal. “Whether the setting is an exclusive club or a service lodge’s weekly luncheon, we should pay our way.”
How do these rules apply to freelance writers? Publications expect their freelance writers to hold to their particular version of journalistic ethics.
As a freelancer, the newspaper staff does not cover any of my expenses—meals, travel, phone bills. Any expenses for an article must come from the fee for that article, and on occasion I’ve had expenses that cut that fee almost to the point of my donating my time to the newspaper—not a good idea, if one needs an income! Thus, I feel free to accept a moderate meal from a fast-food restaurant or to keep a copy of a book presented to me during an interview with the author. I feel free to accept free entry into conferences—in my work as a human service counselor, I’ve attended and reported on numerous conferences. I accepted free entry to a Greenville symphony orchestra, during which Alex Trebek conducted one musical piece. However, I draw the line at some things. The Amish wainwright asked me how much I was going to charge him to write the article on his plying his craft. Of course, I refused.
Other freelance writers may draw their lines differently. The bottom line in all of the SPJ and other publication’s ethics is the maintenance of integrity. In all events, integrity of the written word is important, is the goal of the journalistic ethics policies.
To review the SPJ code of ethics, click http://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp.
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